Looking out the window, I recognized familiar landmarks. The things you see every day, that become part of a routine; and then one day you see them no more. I was dropped at the corner as I had been all those years ago. I started a walk I had done every day for nearly 4 years. The rubbish dump on one side was still just that – a dump. The other had transformed into an upscale building. I craned my neck to try and see any changes down the road – the eventual destination. I could see some new signs, the rest was obscured by the trees – the trees still remained there. A couple of raindrops fell. And for a minute I was a 12 year old treading carefully around puddles, and heading towards school.
Flashforward. I was here. I stood at the gates, gates that had seemed imposing once. The school building looked about the same, the hall.. everything. Some things had changed. The few shops near school seemed to have improved from their once tiny appearance. St. Andrews College opposite seemed to have cleaned up a bit too. I remember warnings from school teachers about how we had to be “careful” – college students were wild people who smoked, drank and were not good company to have. They obviously automatically became people to observe clandestinely.
The watchman would not let me in at first, eventually, good sense prevailed. A side entrance remained the same, I entered. The first difference came to light as girls..girls! came running past me. We had been boys, boys and more boys. Thus the existence of girls at St. Andrews was one of the reasons for heightened allure. I stepped into the office, rewarded by a smile of slight recognition by an office staff member. Smalltalk ensued while a teacher who might know me a little better was sent for. I looked about the office – the stacks of paper, the files, the running in and out of peons.. all of it seemed about the same. And then Jayanthi miss appeared. It is amazing how even after so many years, the ‘miss’ is tacked on automatically. Her smile at seeing me…
Flashback. First day of computers class. We had chosen our electives for the 10th standard exams, while actually being in the 8th. And started playing with BASIC on computers that had probably come into use about 10 years before we touched them. XTs. The sole Pentium was for special occasions. You could even access the internet on it! Everyday was a day of how we had managed to figure out some other amazing thing to do on our machines at home. Flowcharts & programs, tests. Jayanthi miss critiquing my nascent programming skills: “Satish, this is way too complicated. How are you expecting anyone to follow this in the boards?” I had stood up for my program, and shown that it did work, minus 1 mark for mucking up a variable declaration. Late hours at school working on our projects. Helping each other out of the maze of variables and logic that characterized our projects. Being amazed by the inventiveness people managed with even BASIC (e.g. an entire stock exchange manipulation system).
Flashforward. Jyothi miss had come out of a meeting on hearing it was me. I was coming back after more than 10 years. I was pleasantly shocked.. I was really that important? There was a genuine happiness on seeing me on all their faces. Something special to see a teacher from way back when you were someone who had been transplanted to a place that had seemed familiar, but yet alien. They sat and talked me about old time. I was doing a PhD? Wow. I’m engaged? All growing up! Teachers from my time? All gone. Retired, moved, left. Just the two of them. Changes in the school? Good results. New things here and there. My parents? They called and spoke to Mom. Such a fine woman. Computer lab? We have better machines now (laughter). The new ICSE-SSC rule would really make things hard for the students. Jyothi miss gently said the word I was stammering to say: “Screwed. You can say the students are screwed.” I can’t say it in front of a teacher still.
Flashback. English class. Jyothi miss reading out Shakespeare to us. She had taken over from Ms Alves – a teacher who lived English as a religion. I sat taking copious notes in the textbook, notes that were expanded onto pages of a file that would eventually find its way to a bunch of classmates, as well as future ICSE-ites. I remember being bored by the time short stories were done in class – I had probably read them 20 times over in my quest for reading material in school. Both teachers in their own trying their very best to awaken latent literary talent in any of us. Getting noticed for having good essays even in exams. Having a magazine article published based on an exam essay.
Flashforward. Leaving the office, I entered the hall. Morning assembly. Havan. Prayer. Walking out for felicitation after the 10th standard results were announced. Way too many people on stage for the Science and Math awards. It was being prepared for another such Day, which Jyothi miss had invited me to. I remembered being pointed out former students during our assemblies, was I really one of them?
I followed an inbuilt map into and out of stairwells and stairways from there. Second floor, the library. The library peon, Maruti, was still the same. And knew me the moment he saw me. How many kids actually checked out 100 books within a term? How many had checked out the biggest books on offer at the library? How many actually spent most lunch breaks in it? Who had spent an entire voluntary service week as library assistant? Sadly, the librarian was different. Mine had shooed me away during my 10th standard, worried I would read books and not study. The library itself had actually been improved. Some new books. The structure was the same. The books that had introduced me to
MacClean MacLean (ah crap, did not think it possible I would misspell that name!) and Asimov were still there.
4th floor, the science lab. My spot at the very back, where the teacher knew I was the last person to make trouble. I remember the number of times we had discussed our pretty science teacher. Yes, yours truly too. My 10th standard classroom. My 7th standard classroom. My memory of being shocked during my first week in school that people actually stood on benches and jumped each other for fun. 10th standard mass-bunks, except for yours truly, who saw the advantages of coming to an empty classroom, and then spending the rest of the day in the library – partly studying, partly reading.
The canteen. Unrecognizable from the dingy memories I had of it – now all granite-y and shiny. No carrot sabzi (don’t ask). Pav bhaji day meant the canteen was crap-full. Energee, the best thing on the planet. I preferred the canteen from back then. Now it looks impersonal. Or have I been away too long? The tiny basketball court, on which basketball mostly degenerated into football. The playground out back has lost all the monkey bars and slides, and is barren. We used to prefer playing at a much larger ground a little further away, especially since you could actually play football. Or actually hit something close to a six. Not that I was any good at either. The havan mandap, where we had a special one before the board exams, to make sure we did well.
Current students look at me out the corner of their eye, some pose for photos that I take, I walk around a little bit longer.. somehow the more I stand, the more memories awaken in me. A bell rings and I watch kids rush back into class, I remember being one of them all too well now. The watchman now salaams me as I step out, I smile and want to tell him that I liked it better when he didn’t let me in. Reminded me of a time when the rules existed and I could not think of breaking them.
I step out, and I know that going to school is just.. going to school. You always miss it, and nothing can quite bring it back.