Newton’s Third Law of Motion..

Mrs. Subramaniam, our rather boring History teacher, rambled on… her sing-song voice devoid of emotion filled the air with sleep molecules. The resultant yawning faces struggled to stifle the forbidden yawn. She was reading to us from the text book and we had to ‘Pay attention in Pindrop silence.’ Offending her meant standard 10 minutes of humiliation and two giant hands knocking your cheeks apart in two head-splitting thunderous thuds.

Looking sleepy was potentially dangerous. We had mastered the art of looking busy taking notes while she read on. There was nothing to note though, so we busied ourselves with the infinite Mathematics or Science homework, hidden half-baked under the History text book. My two buddies, Shivani Saxena and Anjan Roy, our class toppers since times immemorial, were busy completing Physics. Wow, Mrs. Subramaniam could make even convoluted Physics look interesting by inverse proportions.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I whispered, reading from Anjan’s textbook. “What does that mean? If I hit you, you’ll hit me back, right?” I asked looking unbearably serious.

“No” retorted Shivani, “It means Mrs. Subramaniam will hit him back!” Irresistible smiles breaking through our innocent demeanours. Who hasn’t known the guilty pleasure of seeing a friend in trouble with a teacher? Childhood is cruelly innocent. “Arre tum log chup raho!” Anjan sensed trouble. There we go. “Anjan Roy!” we heard our teacher’s ear-piercing tone and poor Anjan was summoned to her desk for the standard humiliation routine.

Sorry buddy, I never wanted to see you go through that. More than 25 years now, but the guilt still hasn’t stopped gnawing at me.

Did our teachers draw some guilty pleasure out of this discipline formula? In these scenarios, Newton’s third law failed us quite evidently! The giant hand or the narrow end of the wooden ruler hit you hard on your cheeks, knuckles or shins but you had to react with sheer silence. Earth-shattering pindrop silence, heart-wrenching pindrop silence, blood-curdling pindrop silence…

Explanations were demanded and demanded in a variety of tones while the sing-song teacher’s voice transformed into a bag of dramatic raging emotions. The fervently demanded explanations were certainly not to be given though. They were demanded and not called for simultaneously. Explain that one to us please Newton.

Responding, in fact had magnanimous implicit connotations. From disrespecting the teacher to not being attentive in class to being careless to being immoral… actually explaining could mean anything. Silence was the only safe response, even as one was chided to speak up through the beating retreat.

Newton’s law succeeded nevertheless. We still loved the teachers and they loved us back. We fondly remember and laugh at those memories now. School meant life’s grey lessons in so many ways. The secret of golden silence, the simplicity of acceptance, the transience of difficult moments and pain all mixed into the laws of motion and theories of relativity.

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Bugs in my Pen

Ink spots decorating white uniform shirts and some nimble fingers, smeared in blue, drawing caricatures on notebook pages and mindlessly playing tic tac toe…

Yes, school days bring back blue. Blue ink, blue skirt, blue jacket, blue sweater, blue tie, blue house, blue sky, blue water and beautiful indigo blue saris of my favourite teacher, Mrs. Banerjee. Oh and how can I forget what she lovingly called the blue bugs in my pen.

“Are there some blue bugs in your pen? I mean what crawls around and smothers the sheet each time you write? I always admire your imagination, interesting ideas but what’s with your hand-writing girl? So much cutting, so many scribblings, it’s such a mess to read!” She would say, peering anxiously at my rather unkempt notebook while I helplessly witnessed the red blood-curdling bugs in her pen crawl and scratch all over it. The red and blue now looked completely messed up like a super hero!

The spider touch of her pen turned my notebook into a super hero! Trying to make sense of her corrective notes I would be lost in dreams. Red and blue Spider man making my wild spirit fly out of the classroom into the freak universe of imagination. These journeys of the mind’s eye had vivid tales weaved into them, featuring an elaborate range of characters. Tom and Jerry, Super Man, Napoleon, Nancy Drew, Ashoka the Great, Akbar the Great, Sherlock Holmes, Hitler and Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy all came together scheming their way into convoluted plot structures. Some gali cricket featured too. The anorexic doll of our times, Barbie, usually played the vamp! I so thoroughly disliked her. Her bubble bath set featured definitely. It was one toy I had always pined for as a little girl.

The dramatic climax was often cut short by some teacher’s shrill voice, nudging me back into the classroom. “Put away your English work Amrita. It’s the Mathematics period.”

Well, Mrs. Banerjee was responsible for most of those characters and plots. She made them come alive in the History and English lessons. She taught me how to browse through library books making me fall in love with that space. She taught me the habit of sleeping with books and a dictionary under my pillow. I still do.

The red and blue pages always had a valuable remark at the end. Sometimes it would tell me to begin each line exactly below the previous one. Sometimes it would tell me to use ‘their’ and ‘there’ correctly. Sometimes it would tell me to frame the letters ‘b’ and ‘f’ more legibly. Sometimes she would point to the overwhelming use of conjunctions and so on. ‘Avoid those giants of letters. Let me see the Lilliputians in your notebook,’ said one of her remarks. Perhaps even Jonathan Swift couldn’t have imagined Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels as custodians of hand-writing!

The red and blue notebook super heroes created by my favourite teacher gave me a legible hand-writing, my love for reading, and also the bugs infested in my pen. I could barely ever use organisation ideas for my writing pieces though she tried very hard. I still mostly can’t. My pen seems to be on a trip of its own. I can sense the bugs as they take over each time I write…

One of the writing assignments Mrs. Banerjee gave us was to write a story ending with ‘…and the last I saw her was a hand waving out of the carriage window.’

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The Wren and Martin days…

IMG_0080Bright tints of yellow and the succulent sweet tanginess melting into my mouth… Oh the mangoes! They meant the summer, they meant the summer holidays.

Enjoying mangoes at the banks of the river, jumping, splashing, swinging, singing and playing in the flowing waters until our bodies ached and fingers turned into dry almonds… that’s how summer holiday mornings began at my grandparents’ place. No one seemed to worry about the toxic pollutants, the brisk flow of the stream, the chilling cold water, the endless potential risk factors. The muddy waters were sacred. The river loved us. Wrapping us each day into its motherly protective fold it let us regale in sheer thrill. We loved her back. Flowing from the mountains, it was majestic and pure. It was our very own, non-virtual Avenger!

Summer holidays did not mean all denouncement of the academic routine though. Afternoons saw my brother and I sitting around dining tables with Wren and Martin, twitching our fingers and pencils. ‘You have to finish at least 10 pages,’ my mother would repeat as we tried wriggling out of it with some passionately profound excuses. She did not understand English, but she had her own set of unquestionable formulae. Wren and Martin was one of them. It was our completely trusted teacher of English. Books changed with the syllabus for all other subjects as we moved across year groups, but Wren and Martin continued as our haunting mistress right through school.

IMG_0082There was one more formula. All stories in the English readers had to be read and re-read and re-read until they got ‘chewed and digested’. That was my mother’s way of teaching us. She couldn’t explain if we had doubts. She just insisted, ‘Read it again until it’s clear.’ Her formula was consistent. ‘Read it at least seven times. You will understand. Check the dictionary and check Wren and Martin if you still find it tough. Just read and you will understand,’ She would say. Her hands busy sifting the pressure cooker popping away with fresh popcorn. Their delicious butter-salt aroma harking us to complete our reading and writing tasks. My mother’s ideas sounded like madness back then and she wouldn’t budge. Nevertheless, something magical worked and by the fourth reading or so we actually did understand! The rest we faked to her satisfaction.

Now, as a teacher of English when I look back, I can see ‘the method in the madness.’ We self-learnt, explored the tools at hand, applied our minds, collaborated with each other, often agreeing and disagreeing to reach a common understanding. We were peer-learning too and checking our own work, repeating draft after draft until we got there.

Today, while sifting through some old books, I chanced upon a tattered copy of Wren and Martin almost falling apart. Oh the smell of vintage yellow pages… It had a name sticker with my brother’s name and Elle the elephant, holding a pink flower in her blue trunk, peered through it. This was his favorite sticker. No wonder he chose to put it on Wren and Martin. Thanks Elle for preserving this glorious teacher of English for us.

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Where are the swings?

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Dressed neatly, my hair tied stiff in a ponytail, I walked in pride holding my father’s hand. My mother had taken special care preparing me for this morning. I knew I was looking my best. I just had to answer all questions smartly and stay confident through some interviews. Oh, my parents! They had said those words at least a hundred times. Don’t worry, Mummy and Papa, I am prepared…

My father had been here and to some other schools as well. It was a transfer and we had moved into this city called Allahabad. While we strode into the gates of St. Mary’s Convent, my eyes peered around looking for swings. It had to be the swings that made any school worth the while? That was the place to be in a school. Wasn’t it. That’s where we played and laughed and ran around unheeded in sheer bliss. My previous school had some trees around the swings too. Climbing them was the biggest attraction of all. So was stoning the succulent tamarinds and chewing on them with one eye barely open or eating the guavas perched like birds on the branches. We were the free birds here. This was the flight into freedom…

Do they have the trees here? This campus seems to go on and on but alas! Oh where are the slides and the swings? I am yet to see them perhaps. They may be further up. The trees are huge. Would I be able to climb this one? One would need a different strategy perhaps…

‘So, do you like the School?’ asked my father. ‘Ummm, there are no swings here, the previous one we went to was better. There were the swings right in front.’ and oh no! this was certainly not the expected answer, my father’s eyes said it better than words. He liked this one better. Reasons I would discover in the years to come.

We stepped into the school office. I could see various rather huge red brick buildings, spacious corridors and large expansive grounds. I could see no end on the horizon. It looked majestic and too too big, a giant monster of a School. One could get lost here. I held my father’s hand even more tightly, but he unclasped it. ‘Good morning,‘ we heard a shrill voice. ‘Sister Evelyn , the principal is here’ someone announced. She was greeting me. It was time for my interview. I had to be on my own. Oh but she cannot be Evelyn! I know Evelyn from ‘He Man.’ We watch the series on television every Sunday and I’ve read the comics too! Is she really the evil Evelyn? ‘Good morning little girl!’ said a louder voice now jerking me back into the real moment. I could barely stammer, ‘Gggggood morning!’ “You are supposed to say, ‘Good morning Sister’ “ said Sister Evelyn…

My journey in my alma mater began!

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Pindrop Silence!!

‘Pindrop silence,’ she said. Her tone firm, her manner sharp, her piercing eyes peering down at us above a drooping pair of spectacles. She wanted the assignment finished and submitted in the next 5 minutes. No discussion was required, neither thinking. We just had to reproduce facts from the boring history textbook. My fingers played mindless games with my pen as it twirled and twisted, rolled back and forth in classic gymnastic movements. I was trying to remember the number of pillars in the temple architecture of this lost clan that existed far back in time. Was I ever going to visit this place? Meet these people? Would I be using the same number of pillars if I were to design a building some day? Who knows, I may be an architect like my father… issshhh the bell!

Our school bell screeches me back into the present classroom dealing with past facts while I dream of the future… phew! now that’s convoluted. Isn’t it? I can’t remember half the things here and now this assignment has to sit on the teacher’s desk rather than mine. She would put another nasty red mark on this one too. I just wish my father doesn’t attend this Parents’ meeting to be humiliated for my follies yet again.

Oh no! and here comes Mrs. Dandapani, our Mathematics teacher. She loves to paint my notebooks red and yes I already know I am terrible at this. You don’t have to remind me every single day! ‘ Mathematics needs practice.’ Oh yes, I practice and I work very hard trying to do the same sums over and again. I seem to get nowhere though. She too wants some more equations sorted from this chapter on Algebraic Equations. ‘Pindrop silence,’ there she goes again…

Those were some ramblings from my school days. I happened to be an ‘out-standing student’ usually found standing punished outside the class or practising for school co-curricular events simply to skip lessons of teachers I didn’t like. Talkative me couldn’t sit there in silence for 8 long hours for sure. Notorious me spent that energy finding ways to disrupt the lack-lustre school routine. I found positive as well as negative ways out. From Leadership Training service, sports, dance and dramatics to leaving a burning cigarette in the Biology lab skeleton’s mouth, school days made for interesting tales throughout.

Here I am now, on the other side of the fence. Ooops I am a mother, a teacher! And well, I seem to remember zilch out of whatever I crammed to get those good marks at school. Yes, I managed to score those. Wasn’t it supposed to prepare me for life? Why do I feel so ill-prepared then for everything?

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