On my return from Kuwait in the year of our Lord, one thousand nineteen hundred and eighty-five, my mother had enrolled me at the local school in Kerala, a state located on the tapered tip of south India. Here, I had the most enriching experience of boarding life, which I intend to elucidate through my meanderings on mischiefs that young boys display.
Very often, this incorrigible and intolerable age is ignored by many on account of their sheer unattractiveness and petulance. The three miserable years after the onset of puberty render the budding teenager relatively unattended, or to put it in robust terms, invisible, much to his frustration. He allows a certain breed of stupidity to envelop him and conducts himself with reckless abandon. He hopes to insinuate himself into the good books of others through his juvenile feats, making a mockery of himself and eventually falling from grace, or whatever pittance of it.
Alas, converging eyebrows, admonishing voices, and a punitive cane awaits him in ambush. Conversely , his female friends blossom in their pulchritude, maturity and charm, making them the darling of dads and dudes. The poor boy again sulks and succumbs to the ominous reality of being called the devil’s own. At length, he finds solace in his own kind, who are equally deficit in attention, and teeming with the worst eccentricities. Come seventeen and all is forgotten, but until then bear with the brat below.
“How do do do doo ?”
"Hair, cutting okay? "
The first question was supposed to be an enquiry about my mood, health, and provenance. The second sounded like a warning. And a rough one it was, for the ruffian had my long hair in his hands, held tight. Yes, it was my first day in the boarding. I was bullied with' King’s English ' right from the start. A German crop and rustic appearance were advised for self- preservation. The local lads were mean and meant serious business.
Nested on the top floor, the boarding house literally had the semblance of a dovecote that nurtured giant doves. It overlooked the playground and the main road over the crimson wall, which danced along the jagged boundary line.
The school looked imposing with its three floors that pygmied the modest houses in the vicinity . Painted with a sombre cream, crimson seemed to be the partner in crime, lining the parapets and edges. Crimson here, crimson there. I could have sworn that the bloody Crimean war did not shed such crimson as this. The depressing setting compounded the pall of gloom that prevailed all around. Perhaps the bright sun and the Golden sand of Kuwait rendered Kerala a tad dull. But all was not lost, as the bright white shirts and shocking pink skirts of the girls made recompense. A uniform that was introduced ten years before my arrival and still standing the test of time today, with its daring demeanour.
Traffic with roaring buses, honking Ambassador cars, blaring loudspeakers on cycles and political bandwagons all added colour and character to the town. This town was flourishing with a flurry of activity. The avenue was embellished with confectioneries, hair salons, boutiques, and cafes. If I am allowed to express that in crude; The street was lined with bakeries, barbershops, textiles, and cool bars. Blotched, to be precise.
The main attractions were three:
First, Major Bakery, which in no way betokened the size of the bakery for it consisted of only one room.
Then, there was Hotel Ganga ( where Jeby wanted to propose to Simy but foiled due to spoilsport none other than- yours truly ).
And finally , my favourite Sweet Palace which was just across the road.It was a cute cafe with wallpaper on both walls and floor. A pastel shade of orange hue, rendered it a little dim but cozy ambience. Four tiny chairs sieged a small square table, and three of these accommodated about twelve customers. But, this primitive eatery had a surprise waiting for me. It served ice creams, and that too, smoothies. Now, it was near to impossible that such a primitive peddler could serve modern smoothies in an edible cone, and that too in a nondescript town in 1985. I had to inquire. The waiter showed me a machine that made the ice creams. It was a German import which cost the owner a pretty penny. I wondered what more surprises awaited me in the following months.
We scaled the insurmountable walls and stole out during play-time The delicacies were traditional Indian yummies like Punjabi ladoos and jelaibees . Beverages like Thums Up, Limca, and Goldspot, the Indian equivalent of Pepsi, Coke, and Sprite were guzzled down in a hurry before we were reported missing from the boarding. After having our fill, we returned to our rooms in Ninja-stealth, which had by now become standard procedure.
Much to my surprise, these three hang-outs remain intact today after thirty years bearing testimony to the various mischiefs that we contrived. The owners have changed, but the names have not.
The dormitory comprised two rooms, a large one with forty beds, and a smaller dorm which housed twelve imps such as myself. A dark and dingy room, with cracked walls, cobwebbed corners and the scuttling sound of rats reminded me of the artless interiors that houses here had to be content with. White webs of nets canopied every bed protecting us from the marauding mosquitoes that hummed the war cry of Mongolian hordes at night. The only silver lining during these harrowing hours was a plastic line that hung our dirty linen. These ropes ran between our beds, literally tranquillizing us to sleep. The stenchy laundry did its function well and slumber was certain.
Although a wall separated the two rooms, it was not attached to the ceiling, and hence, a wide opening on the top allowed us to hear the occurrings in the adjacent dorm of the seniors. This also enabled BUSH bombings between the two dormitories during a boring night. For those who are unacquainted with boarding warfare, allow me to clarify. BUSH pertains to Banian, Underwear, Socks and Handkerchief rolled into one stinking bomb, and fired over the opening into the other room.
A volley of questions pelted me from all directions with regards to my culture, language, style, sports, and of course, interest in girls. I looked odd enough, sporting a Howard Jones from my punk hair that crowned my head to my ballet shoes. Very soon, my attention-deficit self was turning heads both in the school and wherever I went. I must admit that I was not a pretty sight as I had just come of age, and freckles and tuft sullied my face.
All was not rosy as the Kerala clime squeezed stenchy sweat out of me. The profuse perspiration forced me to use primitive means to cool myself like fanning with my textbooks, much to the annoyance of certain teachers. I was accused of acting like a spoilt princess who expected the weather to curtsy before her. The crowded class was pressing in on me, and the classes were monotonous. Friends, I had few, on account of the language barrier and my inability to blend in. More often than not, I found refuge in a reclining bench near the principal's room on which I used to sit at every interval.
Now, this area of tranquillity was one that I cherish to this day. Lounging myself on this crude piece of furniture, I watched the school go through its daily grind. Teachers, students, visitors, clergy all passed by me passing a smile that I enjoyed on seeing. In a lonely world, devoid of the love of my parents and friends, those smiles brought comfort to my sickened soul.
Now, it so happened that the Principal, a tall, lanky priest with broad shoulders, and slightly arched, passed by, smiling at me. I watched him scurry to his room, and in a few minutes emerge out of it passing by me again. He stopped at the bench, his hands clasped behind his back, and looking down at me with a loving smile, and reminded me that I was sitting on the visitor's bench. At a loss for words, I smiled back gratefully for imparting such enlightening information and mumbled a feeble
"Thank you ",
for although kind and hospitable, the Principal's tall frame and skeletal face with sunken eye sockets instilled fear in students. And off went the priest in a hurry going about his usual affairs. I had heard on more than one occasion that the good priest was demonic in his work, and slavered in the best interests of the school. By now, I had become used to my seat and jealously guarded it against any possible contender, by running towards it at the sound of the gong at the end of every period.
The primitive gong was akin to the Tibetan one but less ornate. Made of bronze, this simple contraption consisted of two bronze parts - a circular plate and a mallet which resembled a mortar. This attracted my interest for it produced a crashing sound that shook the very bones of my being. Often, I sat on the bench, staring at this percussive taskmaster that informed us of the next sorrowful session that was in store for us. My unflinching gaze at this metallic marvel had many people wondering if I was another Newton in the making. The peon, a portly gentleman of fifty, at whose hands the gong came to life was an amiable fellow and greeted me kindly. Every hour, he would show up at the gong-stop, and follow through the usual mechanism of banging the gong. As the reverberation of the crash stopped, he would place the mallet in its niche, look towards my direction and quip,
" the only thing I like about my job ."
Ever since, I was enchanted by the thought of banging that bronze at least once. Think me not a mocker, if I had become a monk in a Tibetan monastery, who took his vows of celibacy, traversed the fertile plains of the Ganges, and scaled the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas in order to punish that piece of metal.
At length, the peon obliged me with this favour, and I had my moment, one day when the school danced to my tune. It had to be executed inconspicuously in the shortest possible time lest the peon and I be pulled up for flouting the rules of the school. I struck hard.....five strikes in the morning and five in the afternoon..... Orgasmic. Even today, I am pretty much ' GONG-HO ' about the instrument, and own a special antique one at my office that gives vent to my violent appetites. Tibet was heroically spared, courtesy, the peon.
But on the same day, I was blessed with another surprise. Towards the evening, while I was sitting at my station, the Principal espied me and smiled at me as he whizzed past. I blurted out a
"Hi, father ",
as I could not allow a man of such noble esteem pass by without a generous greeting from my person. The good priest re-emerged from his room, with a loving smile, and with his hands clasped behind his back, as was his custom, gently requested me to follow me into his room. I answered in the affirmative as it would have been rather rude on my part to refuse him the honour of having my revered presence in his office.
As I entered , from his long cassock sleeve, he brought forth a thick bamboo cane, and with his one hand holding mine, and with the other, he landed with prodigious strength, no more than five blows on to my thighs that made me jump out of my skin. He then bellowed out in a harsh voice:
"First, I had already warned you that the bench was reserved for visitors,
...second... you are expected to stand up when an older person or school authority approaches you and.
... thirdly, you do not greet your teachers or the school principal with an American " Hi ". Do you understand that, you stupid idiot? ".
And then, again with another five landings of that dreadful cane on my buttocks and thighs, he watched me writhe in pain. The agony was so intolerable that it rendered me impossible to correct his grammar in his last sentence containing the imprecations he had hurled at me. ( For, an idiot was always considered stupid, and there was scarcely any need for verbal reinforcement. One could do without the other).
I left the room wiping my tears and rubbing my rump. Climbing the stairs, I ruminated ( although ' urinated ' would have been a better word for the occasion) on the cruel nature of corporal punishment carried out in India. The Father would have fared better as one of the floggers of Christ, than a shepherd, as the flagellation had fried my skin. ( No respect lost, Sir, )
I trudged along the corridors for the rest of the day contemplating the vicissitudes of life. But, then another nagging question, " who had betrayed me ? ". The caning experience had unnerved me. Perhaps, nature had a way of avenging itself, and it was a stark reminder of the gospel truth that one reaps what he sows. Only in the morning did I bang the gong with much delight,.... but did I, perhaps, strike it a little too hard? A total of ten strikes were meted out to the metal, and, here I was succumbing to a traumatic ten.
A local proverb that pinched me held the view that when one gives something inconsiderately or vehemently, it is returned to him in the same fashion in equal measure, with regards to ferocity, velocity, and gravity, surprisingly, in the town of Kollam! Something akin to Newton’s law. In the local language, it goes like this:
"Koduthal KOLLATHU kittum".
Americans simplify it by saying, " what goes around, comes around".
Kollam was far away, but the law had spread its tentacles towards me at this local school. Was Newton's principle nonchalantly nudging me..... or did the snitching peon, perhaps, pander to pernicious play?