The boarding school was not a place I had spent particularly happy times. But rather, it was like being sent to some frugal camp with minimalist lifestyle and rules. Even then, since it had formed a part of my past, part of what I am, those years remain close to my heart. I have tried to write about this time period, many a times. But I have not been able to bring out everything I want to say, in the right light. Failed attempts crumpled and tossed into the bin. This is yet another attempt…
It was a time when the whole world was watching out for what Saddam Hussein and Bush Sr. were upto. While all that filled pages and pages of newsprint for most of us, there was a whole generation of children who were uprooted from the comforts of their rented Kuwaiti apartments and replanted in boarding schools all over Kerala. While the parents were frantically trying to regain all that they had lost, trying to put back their lives and their families together, their children continued to live their schooldays in an environment they were only familiar with, thanks to the three-month annual vacations they used to spend in Kerala.
When things began to look up, my parents left Kerala for Kuwait, to resume their old jobs. My siblings and I were admitted to a boarding school. After pulling out our three green trunks, and after making the three of us comfortable in the guest room, my father left in the taxi, waving to us. We did not realise that we wont be seeing him for a long time now. The green trunks and rolled beddings waited, like unopened Christmas gifts.
That first night, my brother and sister wore their milky-white pyjamas before going to bed. The other children found this ritual amusing and soon enough, Deepthi and Pradeep were christened ‘Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi’. I was left alone, for I just wore an uninteresting printed dress. Slowly, life at the boarding school began to unfurl…
There were those early morning brushing sessions. We stood in a row in front of a line of white sinks. All of us had white foam adorning our mouths, with different coloured toothbrushes sticking out of them… It appeared as though we stuffed white candyfloss on colourful sticks, into our mouths hurriedly. The sun was still not up. I could hear the early morning chanting and hymns from a temple not so far off. I could see the streetlights that worked were still switched on.
There were the Holy Masses to attend. Service began at 5.30 am. We paraded to the chapel in two columns of silence. Except for the patter of slippers and the rustle of the shawls we used to cover our heads with, while inside the chapel. The nuns dominated the entire service, with minimum participation from the sleepy children. Except for the altar boys, none of the other children were expected to move from their positions. Our boarding school barely had any boy students. This situation forced 5-year-old Pradeep to become an altar boy. Not knowing what he is doing up awake before the cock crows, my kid brother grumbled standing next to the priest, joining his palms in supposed prayer. Once he fell asleep in the middle of the service and a nun escorted him out of the chapel, back to his unmade, still warm bed. Of course, he was the source of envy for many of us, that day. Pradeep slept till 8am that day. Lucky bugger.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner, like in all other similar institutions, were unforgettable, if you have tasted it once. But then, it would be a lie if I said that there nothing that I liked about the food we got. There were some varieties of watery lentils that I had begun to really like. There were papery rotis that we looked forward to on Thursdays. There was some concoction of jaggery, coconut and pulses that I really liked. Years later, when the kitchen didn’t seem like a hostile territory to me, I have tried to re-create these above mentioned ‘delicacies’ but I have never succeeded in the endeavour.
There were those sunny April Saturday afternoons. While many napped, there were a few who sat on their beds and talking in whispers, lest they disturbed the others. I never felt sleepy during that time of the day. We were free to sit in the study room. There was a rusty old radio that functioned pretty well. But there was only one radio station that ran on it. The tuning button had come off a few years back. And so, the entire batch of boarders listened to just that station… It aired beautiful melancholy Malayalam songs. Sometimes, even sad songs make you happy. I can’t explain the feeling, but that is how it is. I never tried to understand the depth of the lyrics, in those days. I tried to guess the story behind the song from the singer’s voice, wondering if they were lamentations of loss, or if they were celebrations of blossoming love. I sat and watched the world go by, the busy road just in front of our building. Two automobile workshops, one grocery store, puttering auto rickshaws, wheezy buses, distant strains of yet another loud radio playing the same song that I was listening to, sitting here on this sad windowsill.
There were those secret letter-writing sessions during study time, all of them to Pa and Ma. There was the collection of coloured glass pieces and over-licked postage stamps. We had our playtime every evening. It involved group games in the lawns outside. The red earth and our dusty limbs created collages of footprints of various sizes while we ran about playing ‘I Spy’ and ‘Dog and the Bone’. Sometimes, Pradeep and Deepthi were deemed too little to join in these ‘grown-up’ games. When the bigger children made this decision, I (now, I realise with a lot of guilt… it was probably peer pressure) never did anything to defend them. They would silently disappear from the playground. I played for precisely three minutes and left the scene, in search of the rejected, dejected two. Away, in another corner, amid flowering potted plants sat Deepthi and Pradeep. They were talking amongst themselves, but there seemed to be someone else along with them, and they were accommodating him in their game. I moved in closer to see what exactly they were doing. The fragrant whiff of talcum powder caught the attention of my olfactory system. ‘Cuticura or Yardley?’ The two of them were busy applying talcum powder on this new playmate. They had befriended the old garden gnome! The green ceramic friend stood absolutely still with the carved smile and the stone beard. Deepthi sat on the right and Pradeep on the left of the statue. They were chattering away, having totally forgotten about the rejection that took place minutes ago… I was looking at innocence at its best.
There was the night when Pradeep woke up in the middle of the night bawling for Ma. The two sisters sat up helplessly. We made him sleep in the middle after pulling our cots closer together. The night dragged by. The dorm was pitch dark. The tubelight in the corridor marked its presence, piercing the black… My eyes drooped, dragging me back to sleep. Pradeep’s podgy fingers linked with mine.
There was that day when a lady jumped into the school well. We woke up to a huge commotion in the lawn. The senior girls spoke of a lady who, along with her baby, came to the school compound, removed the metal mesh cover of the school well, and plunged to her death. Huge motors pumped out water from the well to retrieve the bodies. I could not eat that day. Images of a bloated woman kept coming to my mind. That night, I was proud that I was not afraid of ghosts. A strange thought, come to think of it.
There were unkempt roomies and unforgettable friends. There were laundry weekends and community baths. There was the evident rich-poor divide in the sweets kids brought from their homes. There was the collection of coloured glass pieces and over-licked postage stamps. Banana chips dipped in mango pickle…
When I left the place as a schoolgirl, I had some images etched in my mind. The dorm, the corridors, the study room, the chapel, the washing areas, the lawn, the Mango tree, and many more things… Years later, when I went there, I went in search of these very things. But expecting these things to remain the same was a big mistake. The road outside the boarding building got busier. I could see a new bakery nearby. There were girls in the school uniform, sitting there (“hanging out”) and having pastries. They cut the Mango tree a few years ago. The playground had been tarred. The assembly hall looked different. Everything looked different. Everything felt different. No one stopped me as I walked out of the school gates. I had become just another face in the world outside.