Saturday, July 17, 2010

One among the many quirks that existed in school was the habit of collecting pictures of cricket players. Cricket, you see, was more than a craze. While we were taught that all religions were one, cricket was clearly not included in the list.

Pictures of cricketers would be collected and stuck in scrap books. Quantity was clearly more important than quality here, and so the person who had the most number of pictures was the winner. This resulted in a mad scramble for any picture of a cricketer. Even a Syndicate Bank ad that had Sunil Joshi and Venkatesh Prasad was fought over.

There was a bubble gum in those days called 'Big Fun'. The gums were terrible, but they gave free cricket cards. We chose it over the Big Babool - which was softer and had more flavours. Another source was magazines like Sportstar.

I remember during holidays, I would subscribe to three newspapers, and then cut out the pictures, paste them in my book, and bring it back the next year. We were true connoisseurs. The more desperate ones would resort to more risky techniques to acquire pictures. The only time we got to read newspapers was after lunch. We would have lunch quickly (difficult, when the punishment for eating slowly was being made to sit in the girls' side) and rush to the staff room. We would then request a teacher to give us the newspaper and read the Sports section. This was when the desperate among us would slowly tear the Sports page, fold it to the size of Vim Bar, and sneak it out in the pant pocket.

Cricket stickers had higher value among the collectors. You could exchange a sticker for five 'rare' pictures, two chintapandu balls, a magnet, or a bubble gum. Bubble gums promised a good bargain due to the effort involved in smuggling them into building. On Sunday when there was Parents Meeting, there were 2 guys who went around the ground with a bell, signalling to one and all that it was time. The trick was to make sure that you were among the bell boys. A prior understanding meant you were given bubble gums, which you pocketed and entered the building with the bell, while others were checked in the lobby for things they might have attempted to sneak in.

Coming back to Cricket Stickers. The cricket stickers were valued possessions and played a number of roles. One of them was being paid to seniors as some sort of 'tribute'. I remember a senior who would bully a friend of mine.

"Fellow, pay me 5 cricket stickers,ee"
"I dont have, brother...."
"Then pay me nuggets curry...."

As a result, whenever there was nuggets curry, my friend would eat slowly, wait for the 7th std. guys to say Bramharpanam in the '7th std bass voice', and then give him his nuggets curry. Of course, he could dip his chapathi in rasam or slip it under the mat.

There was this other senior who had a favourite bathroom. One day he saw me coming out his bathroom and stopped me.

"Why you went to my bathroom, ee?"
"It was empty..."
"So? You'll enter off,aa?....Now pay me 10 cricket stickers"
"Ok", I said dejectedly.
"No, pay me a cricket sticker with Sanath Jaysuriya and Sachin Tendulkar drinking coffee"
"From where I'll get that..?"
"Then pay me nuggets curry"

So whenever there was nuggets curry, I stuffed my lunch within seconds and went to the staff room to tear off the Sports page from the newspaper.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A misunderstood Robin Hood?

Everybody asks me why I think so highly about Enrico. I mean, he was a general pest, and pissed off everyone around him with astounding frequency. So what exactly was likable about him?

Well, the thing was that he was a rebel in the truest sense. Someone who can give Ryan from 5.someone a run for his money. Though it was easy to brand him as a poltergeist, I can now see why he behaved the way he did.

Think about it this way, You are a 5 year old from Italy. All of a sudden you are put in a strange land, where you do not understand the language, the people, the customs and the prayers. You cannot eat the food that is served on a daily basis, and you are considered an outsider wherever you go. And in those days, being a foreigner had its own Damocles sword. You were expected to be a hooligan, and had this reputation to live up to. But like I always say, he was quite nice at heart.

It was difficult to be his friend. All the teachers marked you out, and since Enrico was genetically created in such a way that he could never be punished, you bore the brunt of his being Italian. The punishments were accompanied with threats of TC and there were hardly 5-6 guys in the class who spoke to him on a regular basis. For others, he was trouble with freckles, and they just avoided him.

Though most of his hatred was directed towards homo sapiens, he had love for animals, especially puppies and kittens. I remember in Class 8, we had found two puppies without their mother in the stadium. We brought them and built some sort of a house for them in the terrace. We used to steal breakfast for them in the morning. And in the afternoon, since Enrico never attended any classes anyway, he was given the responsibility of taking care of the puppies. And he never forgot to do his duty! He also got along famously with Narsimha, the official hostel pet.

And he had strange urges. While everyone else would be in the Kulwant hall attending a discourse, he would want to check out the Kalpavriksha hill. Now, sneaking out with him was always risky. Since he grew up in Parthi, every hawker and shop keeper knew him. While we would try to sneak out being as inconspicous as possible, my heart would jump when all of a sudden, a voice would call out, "Hey, Henry! How are you?". And like a true friend, he would always go and meet the shop keeper, leaving me standing outside, hoping I had brought an Invisibility Cloak with me. Once we reached the top, he liked to stand on top of the highest rock and look down upon the entire town. Its a different matter that once Janardhanan saw us from the hostel and we were duly butchered.

Another incident that comes to my mind was when we were really young. We must have been in Class four. I dint go home during Winter Holidays (in those days, they were for a full month) and so I stayed with a relative in Parthi. Inside the ashram, all the students who were in Parthi (foreigners, lecturers' children etc.) would gang up and play.

And what fun we had! There weren't as many buildings as there are now. And since Diwali was round the corner, we would buy crackers from outside and choose ideal locations and victims for them. Under the chair of a sevadal enjoying a siesta, lighting a bijli bomb and throwing it into the East Prashanti toilets. East Prashanti had a lot of grumpy old people and we thought it was cool to be chased by the Sevadals. And then, we would go to his home and his mother would cook the best Italian food I have ever eaten.

So anyway, it was one of those days when I was waiting for him to come out of his house in Round Building - 3, so we could go on another of his rounds of destruction. I was waiting in the garden behind the Round Building - the one that has the bronze statue of Ganesh with an umbrella and other structures.

When I was sitting there, a guy approached me. He must have been about 25 years old. He enquired about who I was, and asked me if I watched movies. I don't remember the exact conversation, but he asked me if I watched films. I said yes (Bhakta Prahalad is a film, mind you) and he then asked me if I knew what heroes and heroines do after getting married.

After a while, he asked me if I wanted some money to buy chocolates, which I happily accepted. He then asked me to accompany him to the East Prashanti toilets. It was only when we entered the toilets did I realise what he was upto. When I was trying to run out of the toilets, Enrico arrived and saw that guy trying to get hold of me. He came and asked me what was the matter.

The guy was all smiles, explaining to Enrico something about toilets and hero and heroine and love.... I still remember the kick.

We weren't very tall then. But I remember him taking his leg backwards, resembling Sehwag when he sees an over-pitched ball. He raised his leg backwards, and brought it down right in middle of the guy's legs, jeopardising his chances of starting a family in future.

The guy was on the floor, screaming his heart out. Sevadals rushed to the spot and we ran from there, straight into his house.

I don't remember if I thanked him. I mean, he wasn't exactly the kind of guy who laid a lot of emphasis on Thank You, Please, and Sorry. But I remember thinking that he wasn't that bad a guy after all. May be some sort of a misunderstood Robin Hood.

Of rules, rulers, and rule-breakers

I have met a lot of friends after we passed out from school, and most of the time, I am surprised at the transformation that has taken place. Some who were considered 'duds' are now the most successful, silent guys have become extroverts, and there is a sense of rebellion in almost everybody. Another thing is that when they step out, almost everybody has long hair. (At least for a few years, till like me, they realise they look like a rickshaw wala).

But when there are talks of meeting up, it is always found that some of the guys are unwilling to meet up. Many are ashamed to admit they studied at Puttaparthi and instead say they studied somewhere in the outskirts of Bangalore. Some do not want to talk to the rest of the batchmates. This has never failed to surprise me.

How could this be? We were given the perfect education, weren't we? The flowers in the Garden of Sai or whatever. Why then would these so called flowers not bear to talk to each other then?

I think the problem was too much judgement. Even before we could make sense of the rules, the language, and the daily routine, we were categorised into good and bad. Into bright and dull. Into form boys and rakshashas. Too early in life, and these tags stayed for ten years.

If there is anything about my schooling that I regret, it is this categorisation. I know it is difficult to control a large number of kids, and that sometimes we did get under the teachers' skins, and onto their nerves. But still, sometimes the categorisation was too much. And it was in this habit that our education became pretty much one-dimensional. Sports was extra-curricular, other talents were only to be noticed during competitions. If there were two things you had to be good at, it was studies and behaviour. I found it a little stifling.

Rules are meant to be broken, I know. But some of the rules were completely ridiculous. One of the main problems I had with the school was the rule against talking. I talked a lot - while eating, during darshan, during classes, and also sometimes in my sleep. And I got punished for that too. But how can you ban talking? Children are human beings after all. How will they communicate if they do not talk?

We did not have parents to talk to, nor could we go talk to someone after school. The teachers weren’t exactly E.R.Braithwaites, so we couldn’t talk to them. And I really could not understand what the fuss was about talking. Come to think of it, talking to each other was illegal throughout the day, with games time being the only legal talking time. If children do not talk, do not communicate, what will they do? Write autobiographies? Develop spiritual theories??

Another rule I could not understand was the rule that banished people from going to others' rooms. I understand this rule was created when swami had once said that boys are going from one room to another like cats and dogs. Now, even someone with a basic understanding of things would tell you that the problem lay elsewhere. But the brilliant minds there could do nothing but take the statement verbatim and ban people from entering others' rooms. So, if you wanted to talk to someone about something, you could not enter their room. You had to stand at the door and speak to the person.

And then, there was a brilliant rule in C floor, under which, if you were caught entering a friend's room, your luggage would be sent to that room and you had to stay there. Now, this was completely baffling. Its like saying, alcohol is banned, but if you are caught drinking, you will be given a crate of beer and asked to drink it all. But nonetheless, I enjoyed this rule. Half of my time in C floor was spent in others' rooms, as most of the time the guys in my room were mini-Bhakta Prahalads.

Lastly, the habit of tagging people was more common in the high school than the primary school. If you were weak in studies in Class 1, the tag stuck till you left school. If you were talkative, it meant you were a criminal. Though it was alright in the primary school, there was a sudden transformation in the high school, when a seat in the eleventh standard was on top of everyone's minds.

A lot of my friends stopped talking to me, for fear of being branded as a bad boy. In Class 10, a lot of my friends would get letters from the teachers asking them to stay away from me. There have been instances when parents have called up, asked for me, and specifically asked me to stay away from their children. It took a little time to digest, but it did eventually sink in. That a seat in 11th standard was probably more important than sharing a Sardarji joke. And if they did speak to you, their palms would be reddened with a wooden ruler.

We might have been the flowers of Sai. We might have been monkeys in the Vaanar Sena in Treta yuga, and Gopikas in Dwapar Yuga, and struck third time lucky being students in Cyber Yuga. But behind it all, was a complex structure of trying to figure out who you were, who your friends were, and why everything was black and white.

And then, may be you can understand why some of the guys do not wish to acknowledge their friends once they have left school. May be they are still scared of being judged, compared, and asked to shut up. If there is someone like that, leave them be. They have made the choice they have, and you have the memories of the days you spent together.