The clouds were glowing behind us when we saw our baby owl. I and my little brother knelt on the leaves, releasing our intertwined fingers to hold it in our hands. Before we knelt between the rubber trees, I whispered in his ear that we should keep this to ourselves. Our uncle walked ahead, making incisions across the latex vessels. He had not seen the beautiful pet animal of ours. While we released our fingers, mine trembled in the cold air. It was nautical dawn. I was six years old. He was four.
While walking back home, we insisted on taking the baby owl with us. We walked, holding it in our palms, taking turns, occasionally moving our fingers through its forehead. We had never seen an owl before. When an aunt once tried to put me to sleep telling the story of an owl, it made me “afraid”. To sleep, I had to get the owl out of my system. She quickly gathered that to put me to sleep, what it took was a warning that she will hand me over to an owl. It was, indeed, a credible threat of punishment.
When we reached home, our aunt said that we should leave the owl where we had taken it from. “Baby owl’s mother will be sad if it does not see its child.” she said, reaching for the owl. We withdrew our hands and said, “If you give it back to baby owl’s mother, we will be sad.” We succeeded in fighting her off for a long while, but it was a conflict that she won. She had always deliberately thwarted my wishes.
Once, rising onto my toes, I had asked her whether we could make Onion-Vadas without onions. She asked, “How do we make Onion-Vadas without onions?” She was cutting onions, and there were tears in my eyes. I did not like the taste of onions. When I stood there watching the swift movement of her fingers, I saw the mist through the window.
I was three years old then. She was still a teenager. I remember that she called me a book-worm. If the word helplessness has ever had any definite meaning to me, it meant waking up at midnight, insisting that I wanted to sleep with her. To me, happiness meant being allowed to sleep with her. Children take delight in such petty vices. My mother knew this. When I grew up, once, when I talked to my class teacher in baby class, she felt that even today, decades later, I speak the same way I spoke to her when I was three. Within us, there is a child that refuses to grow up.
When I insisted that I wanted to join her when she bathed, she raised her hand as if she were trying to smack me. She never did that, but I stared at her palms, hoping against hope that she did. I remember someone who was unapologetic about it. Later, I lay on the bed counting the marks of her fingers wondering whether it was all a dream, or whether it really happened.
But, it took me decades to understand what she meant when she said that we cannot make onion-vadas without using onions. Two decades later, I told many “editors” that it would be great if the newspapers and newsmagazines do not carry news at all. They disagreed, much to my chagrin. I do not know whether it bore any resemblance to what I once demanded of my aunt. In many important ways, we do not change. There is often a conflict between how things are, and how things ought to be. Deep down, I was always attached to my vision of how things ought to be. But, I was attached to it only because I relished it. Even today, when I write, it is not about what happened at the corner saloon, but about the fundamental principles of human nature. When authors cite me in 4011 AD, I do not want them to tell their readers that this is a Neanderthal philosophy.
When I became aware of my own existence, I was lying on the bed holding the leg of my little brother, fearing that he might fall off the bed. My mother had asked me to watch over him while she bathed. As post-toddlers, we folded the bed to wrap each other, taking turns. The girls in the neighborhood took me to their houses to tell me how cute I was. In the afternoons, lying on the bed, I waited for my father to come back from college and read to me. In the night, I insisted that my mother lie near me till I fell asleep at Baby Standard Time. 9 O’ Clock. I was afraid of the dark.
I have always had scary dreams. When I was nineteen, in a dream, my mother spanked me for breaking the flower vase. I woke up, screaming. My mother came downstairs and asked, smiling: “Did you dream of being punished by me? Nothing happened. Sleep tight.” I never understood how she could sense it without my saying so. Women have such sharp intuitions. I had the same dream when I was seven years old. It was then I understood that deep down, I loved it. When I was a child, I often dreamt of rabbits. My mother said that it is because little children are innocent. I dreamt of snakes too. A girl in college said that it was because I was horny. I am not sure I agree with her, because those dreams were really scary.
When my mother kept me on the bed insisting that I sit still, I barely moved. I was not a noisy baby like the infants that infest the Delhi Metro. I do not want them inside my home. But even as a baby, I quickly gathered that the people around me were not really curious about the world. I watched the world without smiling, intensely. There was not a single word or incident that escaped my attention. When I spent many hours staring at the floor, my aunt once asked me what I was doing. I said, “I am thinking”.
When I came of age, my parents sent me to school. On the first day of Kindergarten, when my mom decreed that I go to school, I said ‘No’. I refused. When my mother smacked my behind firmly, I walked toward school, hushing my sobs. The upside was, of course, that it struck me that the authority figures that use force for my own good are worthy of my deepest suspicion. It was a lesson I would never need again.
I still remember my first day in Kindergarten. The sky was clouded when I stepped out of my house. When it rained, I stood beneath the black plum tree near the school gate. The wind blew, splashing the fruits over my school uniform. But, there was nothing much I could do about it. I was left unarmed in a room of nearly fifty children, most of them crying and whining. A child stood near the door of the classroom, peeping out. Separation from their parents was a source of intense anxiety, and helplessness for those post-toddlers.
My class teacher was a pretty Gujarati lady. I do not know why she enjoyed punishing the soft child that I was. I am not lying. I do not think I deserved it. But, this was by no means the norm. The other teachers had ridiculous reasons to punish children. When I was walking back home after my first day at school, I noticed that a child was crying. The older kids were amused, and said in a singsong voice: “Shame, Shame!” I would have been more at peace with the proceedings in a concentration camp.
I once said, “School teachers are duds.” in the hearing distance of my class teacher. I do not remember why I said the obvious. But, I remember that she never forgave me for speaking the unspeakable. I have always wondered why this soft, silent boy was always eager to state the truths that were better left unsaid. It was never to inflict pain, because even the sign of the slightest pain in others made me feel terrible.
I did not look forward to the parent-teacher meetings because deep down, I always knew that I had some history with her. There were of course, other reasons. Once, at a parent-teacher meeting, my classmate Anjali told my mother that I always dumped my lunch in the dustbin. When my mother came back home, she was really angry. I do not intend to write about what happened that evening. I suspect that it was Anjali who ratted on me. She had dark eyes, pigtails and everything.
Once, when I went to the beach with my parents, I met my class teacher. She gave me chocolates and said that I should say “Thank You”. I said “Thank You”, with a shy smile on my face. I bent my head and stood there staring at the sands of the beach. When I occasionally raised my head, behind her, I saw the tides rising and falling while the evening sun set. At that moment, all I wanted was to escape from her and the beach. Even after two decades, I cannot get over my crush on her.
While walking back home, I saw a sea shell washed upon the beach. I held it close to my ear, and heard the roar of the waves rolling onto the shore. With an expression of astonishment on my face, I held it close to my little brother’s ear. He smiled. When I reached home, I walked toward our childhood friend Honey—for such was her name—to let her “hear the sea”. But, she claimed that it was hers. I told her that she was lying.
Honey was our neighbor’s daughter. In one of those days, I and my little brother found a baby crow near our house. When we tried to take it in our hands along with Honey, the bigger crows hounded us, and drove us back home. We stayed inside and watched them nervously when the crows were roving around our home. In the afternoons, Honey crawled into our bed to listen to our mother’s stories. When our mother slept, three of us went out to play.
Nothing of her subsists in my memory, but it is hard for me to forget the doll my parents wanted to gift her. It had blue eyes. But, soon my little brother confessed to me that he did not want to play with her anymore because she was fundamentally different from us. I do not remember whether I was overwhelmed, because I myself had considered ditching her. She was too melodramatic for my tastes. We kept the doll with us. But, it was hard for us to like it.
When our father started teaching in another city, we packed our bags and left. While packing, I had noticed that our doll was missing. To me, that was a problem to be solved, because there was nothing else that was missing. We had not taken the kitten that used to open the door for us, but, that was intentional. Years later, when we attended a wedding in her house, I stared at her shelf. I could not believe my eyes. It was our doll. When I pointed out the doll to my mother, she whispered in my ears that I need not tell anyone. I was silent for the rest of the evening, but I felt vaguely uncomfortable.
It was in Kindergarten that I learned to say that I “loved” school. One morning, while taking me back home on the day of a strike when the whole city came to a standstill, my father asked me, “Do you like school?” I said that I loved school. When he asked me, “How do you feel today?” I said that I was sad.
When I was still crawling, my parents had conned me into thinking that I would have a swell time in school. A few hours in school were enough to convince me that it was moonshine. I soon started looking forward to summer vacations. But, I should have known better than to take their words at face value. Once, my mother said that she was cooking Aviyal—and that I would probably love it. I waited, and waited and waited. But, it tasted so awful that I developed an aversion toward anything that looks messy. I hear that now there is a rock bank called Aviyal.
On the day the summer vacations began, I and my little brother woke up in the morning and opened the door to “play”. But, we saw all our chairs hanging on a tree. On a placard, it was written large: “April Fool!” We stood there with an expression of astonishment on our faces. When we called our parents, they said that it was the “April Fool’s Day”. They intuited that some of my father’s students did that. I had seen them. Once when my father gathered that they did not know the difference between Arabic numbers and Roman numerals, he called me and my brother. He then said: “They are in school. They know what it means.” I glanced at them contemptuously. They were bored to death when the university compelled them to read the great classics of western literature. They would have rather been lashed till death.
I still remember my first day in primary school. The “male chauvinists” in my class said that they will not be sitting with the girls anymore. I was the only boy who was willing to sit with them. I have always had an exact mind, a mind that took words literally, a mind that judged an idea on its own merits. The other boys said, “If you love them so much, why don’t you kiss them?” I sat there, feeling alienated—feeling cut off.
But, my views on feminism have not changed since then. I was convinced that this “attitude” was transmitted from father to son. The Indian economy was at the cusp of liberalization. I felt that it would take a few more years for the country to undermine, and eventually wreck the remnants of the patriarchal culture. I stand corrected.
At school, I was always confused and bewildered. When I was five, one day, I walked toward school without my school bag. I had heard that a day-long Fine Arts Festival was going on. When I walked into the classroom, my class teacher smiled and asked whether I had come to the school to enjoy the breeze. “Where is your bag?” she asked me, not without some disapproval. I glanced at her, my eyelashes moving upward, with deep sadness in my eyes. Then, I looked at my empty shoulders. Somewhere those tender shoulders had failed me. I felt alienated from my school-bag, and for once, I grasped the intimate relationship between sarcasm and alienation. Somewhere the premises do deeply interconnect.
I felt terrible when my classmates frantically took notes. But, did I sit there enjoying the breeze? Did I cry like a sissy? No. I did not. I would not even have even been able to bring me to write about myself if I had done so! I would have been mighty ashamed of myself today if I had done so! I listened to every word she uttered, slowly, committing them to memory. It was a life-and-death matter to me. While traveling back home, I repeated those words to myself because I feared that I might forget much of what I had heard. When I reached home, I sharpened my HB pencil, and wrote everything she had dictated in my note book. When I was done, I had my lunch.
The next morning, with subdued anger, she said, “Come here”. I walked toward her with my notebook. My lips were sealed. I was painfully shy. When she opened the notebook, she noticed that I had written everything she taught the previous day, in clear letters. She hugged me tight. When she gave me the progress report at the end of the year, I noticed that at the bottom, she had written: “Photographic memory”.
I am not indulging in malignant self-love. My point was that I learned a lesson. When there is a will, there is a way. These are lessons that a child does not learn in a classroom. These are lessons that a typical teacher will never even begin to understand. It should come from within. These are values that cannot be taught. Either you have it in you—or you do not.
School cannot teach conscientiousness. When I started working, I noticed that some of my colleagues came at noon, left in the afternoon and looked here and there when tired annoying others. But, instead of feeling bad about themselves, they felt policed and persecuted. If natalists can be caught thinking of mandatory sterilization, it is hard to blame others. I think Delhi-ites are cats. The whole city is infested with character disorders. If anything, school reinforces such character disorders.
The next year, I was depressed because she no longer taught us. One afternoon, I walked toward the staffroom, and stood there, staring at her. When she asked me, “Why are you here?” I walked away, nodding my head. I was devastated for a very long time.