That’s a name that stuck in my head all these years, even though I had forgotten the person. There’s very few of my classmates from school that I’ve managed to stay in touch with anyways. I don’t recall his name being mentioned in any conversation in all these years. Some of us went to school together for 12 years. And then others came in and went out of our class at various stages. Amarabalan and I were together from Class 1 to 5. I hadn’t heard of him ever since.
When I met him after all these years the other day, outside our school, I was in for a lovely surprise. And perhaps, a shock in some ways. He came, looked me into the eyes, and asked, ‘Bala, teriyuda da enna?’ *
What immediate caught my attention was his eyes.
Most of the times, I forget names. They are most likely to be of people that I have had a happy time with, but perhaps relatively briefly. Mostly during my travels. In some town or sometimes just for the duration of a train, or bus, or even an autorickshaw ride. Nothing much more.
I tend to forget faces much less, though. They stick. I know you, I just can’t place some things. You name, may be one such thing.
This man was a rustic. We must have spoken for ten minutes in all. In that time, the conductor had come in to say he must sit at the back of the bus. I had reserved seat in the front and the seat next to mine was vacant. I felt offended and told the conductor that he’s found a place to sit! Why make him get up? After that, I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, he wasn’t to be seen, until much later when the man had wanted to get off at, close to our destination. The bus driver just asked him to get off in the midst of traffic, hardly having pulled up the road properly. I was upset, but then I could empathise with the drivers too. It is hard. Roads are becoming like zoos.
In the brief minutes this man had spoken to me, I observed that he was a simpleton. Probably a farmer. ‘I am from Chennai, and I had come here on work. There’s no water there for us, back home. Out here, in Chinna Salem, there’s drinking water. The cattle, poor things, they suffer the most when there’s no water.’
Then there was Manivannan. This was most recently, and I had made a (physical) note of his name, and so I remember.
He had refused to turn on the meter, I refused to ride with him. He came back to me. ‘Meter pota 80, oru 20 kooda kudu.’ ** It was quarter to 11. The second time, I didn’t have the heart nor the energy to refuse. I had observed his frail body. He wore a long grey beard, and looked older than he probably was. He spoke a lot. I was tired and sleepy, so couldn’t register it all. He hails from a village in Perambalur district. If I remember right, he had come in the early nineties to Madras. A decade later, his family went back to their village. His two sons both go to college, I was told. I remember thinking that he had done well for himself. In a strange way, that made me proud.
It came back to me, almost as if in a flash, when he stood there in front of me. Amarabalan, the name, and the face. I was in awe of the moment. I remember he had sharp eyes. He always seemed like looking at things keenly. A lot of times his forehead would be a little creased. Maybe it had something to do with ‘pepe’, a game where a group of people is after a tennis ball, throwing it around to hit each other. He was pretty damn good at it. And I used to get hit a lot, with the ball, especially by him. I must have been easy target. And sometimes, I also remember seeing fear in his eyes. I don’t remember him doing well academically, but he was a perfectly ‘normal’, ‘smart’, talented kid. He now teaches at a college. He didn’t speak too highly of his job. Apparently, he did more for the system, than for the kids. It was evident, that he didn’t like his work. And I wondered how much our schooling had to do with where he or each one of us was. After all, aren’t schools supposed to help us carve out a path for ourselves?
That morning, I had very mixed feelings. I was extremely excited about meeting everyone. They had all planned to go to school, something I was not very keen about, for some reason. I’ve felt the same way about college, too. Not that they were ‘bad’ places, not to me in any case. In fact, I am grateful for absolutely wonderful, beautiful, colourful times as a student. As I heard names, and saw a few faces standing outside the school compound, my mind was racing away.
Through the day and until the following morning, I had a blast of a time with friends. With most people, it felt very easy. Just very easy, it was that simple. There’s something about childhood friends. I just felt like, if any of them needed me to, I’d just stand up for them. No questions asked. Each of us had parted at different points of time. A handful of them, I have since been in touch with. Every one of the rest, was a delight to meet. A lot of the girls felt the boys had changed in many ways, including having grown taller! And more than one of those pretty ladies told me that day, that I had changed to have become a lot quieter. I was quite an extroverted child. We were always up to something. We played, out in the open. A LOT.
Every one of them has had his or her life. They’re all doing their things. Some work for others, others make others work for them. Many of them have been married. Some had really grown up kids! I remember all of them as being unique. And when it came to school, I look back and think that it was mostly about coping. Parts of it were fun, no doubt. I remember liking some of the subjects too. And then there was time with friends – playing, just meeting, talking, flirting with the girls, during outings and what else not.
One of them had travelled roughly 3000 km, all the way from Assam. ‘I loved school days. Mostly my friends. I love you all. I had a tough time trying to study, though. I couldn’t get a lot of what we were expected to learn. You did,’ he told me. I was shocked to hear that after all these years. In my student days, I remember I had thought this fellow coped better, honestly. I really didn’t study all that much. We had a lot of other things to do, like I mentioned earlier. And then there were things like reading, music, ‘extra-curriculars’, or Scouting. I guess for me, they were all key parts that not only helped me learn a great deal more, they helped me cope with the whole idea of a classroom.
Back then, I was a mixed bag. I did a lot of shit. I remember one teacher. She got hold of me while I was returning from the playground. I think it was my last year at school. She took me around, and showed me to a few of her colleagues, and exclaimed, ‘Look at his shirt. They’re supposed to be grown up, and look how they play so much to soil their shirts.’ I used to like her. I think I coped fairly well with the studying part. I understood things, mostly. Or so I thought. And then I had learnt some tricks that helped me do well in examinations, thanks to my teachers. I was even appointed ‘monitor’, in my primary classes. Looking back, the term looks abhorrent. Later, it became ‘leader’. Just as ‘miss’ had become ‘madam’. In both cases, the connotation of the terms didn’t change much. My job was to ‘shepherd’ others and let the teacher know who the rogues were. Each of them would then punish us appropriately. I wish someone explained the meaning of the word ‘leader’. I look back with a measure of guilt, that all I did was to be policing, and I never thought of helping my buddies out. It seems to me that we were taught competition more, than cooperation. All the cooperation, we mostly learnt ourselves, outside the classroom, mostly in playgrounds and so on.
I look back at my experience at school & college, and it makes me want to cry. Especially because I am now exposed to ideas around education. I wish kids don’t have to constantly struggle at school. I wish it wasn’t just about coping, but truly learning and discovering oneself. This isn’t to say that I had ‘bad’ teachers. As I remember it, most of them were perfectly nice people. Most of them perhaps wanted good things for us. Yet, I can’t help but think how limited they were in their views & consequently in doing their jobs. And I won’t blame them at all. Every teacher is but a product of the same system that is badly in need of transformation. All these thoughts are without doubt, in retrospect. Especially given that I’ve come to understand education somewhat better.
I am grateful for my work now. It adds a lot of meaning to my life. What keeps me going, is that somewhere, we may trigger some teacher may open her eyes, and change her mind a wee bit. It may just be trifle, yet I find it important to keep going. If we want a better world for ourselves & our kids, then there’s no better place than to start with our schools. Else, schools will remain places where thousands of nameless faceless entities do nothing more than struggle, and somehow find their way out. And it is high time that changed. So that another Amarabalan can discover himself.
* ‘Do you remember me?’
** ‘If I use the meter, it will come to 80. Give me 20 more.’