Her name was Anna. All in red. In purple, Phyllis. In green the year before, Praminda with her gulail, as we sang ba-ba-ba-ba-buus time! and I was the last one dancing when it was already time to go. The sandstone curve there was built like a train, with holes for windows. Facing inside, sand. The TV in yellow nursery B, where we watched the duck lose its way or love and find it again downriver. The house in the middle, kept open always, dark inside and comforting. They fetched me out from there once or more than once. Milk time, biscuit time, pieces of cane — yes please and no thank you, Jivan bhaiya. The smell of the kettle. Parboiled milk—
Next year once I had to go home early. Ma’am Anna called my mother. Later around Sports Day a series of arguments — the vest had to be just so, and they wouldn’t provide it. We were sailors. There were other demands. Ribbons, glitter, glaze paper. Compass, maps, raffle tickets. On Annual Day once, or the Scene III dress rehearsal, we clustered at the window in the dark, looking at the gurduwara, thinking we could see the Taj Mahal—
Geeta Rao, first standard. My sister’d forgotten her bottle on the bus and was absent that day. She’d left me with a task : get the bottle from the rack and keep it with you, or someone might take it. It was morning, and I had two bottles now. I waited in the balcony outside the classroom for Geeta Rao to come and smile. I explained the dilemma — “Ma’am, I have a very serious problem.” Told her I could keep the second bottle in my bag, but it was big and wouldn’t fit in with all the other things. Or, I could hang both bottles from my chair, or give her one to keep till the end of the day, if she wouldn’t mind. She smiled and solved the problem—
They give you green trousers in the medical room. Saroj Khanna slapped my sister, for laughing too hard. Aastha Khanna came into our class and took some chalk from by the board when G.R wasn’t looking. I said “Ma’am, she’s taken some chalk!” and Aastha Khanna banged her chalky fist hard on my desk in a cloud before leaving. That was the year Feroze took my lollipop and didn’t give back—
Of course before Springdales there was playschool, Toddler’s Den. That was where I met Sagar. We’d go in a cramped Matador hung with bottles and bags strung along the outside. I remember a white yellow room and ( this can’t be right) a pond, something like Hyderabad. A pond. Toddler’s Den in the bright sunlight. Going there made me sad. I couldn’t see why we had to get up so early and go there in the morning—
That one was hot. Name with a K, always in those medical room pants or his own track bottoms. I don’t know his name but the girls remember him. He left early.
We were political prisoners. It was in the Ⅱnd that I started to resist. Didn’t go to school for about six months. My dad would bring me to class and sit there so I wouldn’t try to leave. I’d clutch the tree at the bus stop not to get on the bus. When he tried to leave I’d start crying and screaming. Still don’t know why, I think it had something to do with being made to get up in the morning every day. I’d sleep in, I’d stay in the loo. I’d stick to the tree. I kept trying to leave. Once Mrs Shergill barred my way. I reached high up and grabbed her breasts with both of my hands. She was unmoved, just gave me a stern look. They were asked to make me get well soon cards, though I wasn’t unwell. ’s said Aman you look like a prince. Years later I met Mrs Shergill at the mall. Didn’t look down. “The writing isn’t coming” I told her desperately. “The writing will come,” she told me. Only last week I figured out what she means—
They thought maybe the problem was Shagun Oberoi, our newish class teacher. She hit and screamed a lot, but never at me. Was it a bully, was it abuse? I couldn’t help them identify any such thing. Morning in and morning out things went on. Finally Mrs Grover sat me down in her office with a plate of sandwiches and what passed for a book. I was happy. The other teachers came and went, she had her meetings. She told them with a look not to say anything. I calmed down there, away from crowds, thinking myself able to do what I want. But mostly those six months I stayed home—
Samridh was there. We were close. Either he hadn’t left there or he hadn’t come. It felt good to have someone else new around. Later too I would hit it off with an Anglicized outsider. Samridh left soon after. His dog was named Sheba, a big black spongy sort of dog. She’d let him jump on her, me sit on her, do nothing while I watched. I think he had an older sister too. His mother got us sandwiches. Years later I met him at a bookshop, it was awkward. Found out his father worked for Gilette. Later still I met him at the Gymkhana. He swapped in the library me whatever he was reading for my Archies, the last one. Neha saw that. I think I must have loved him, another too, who was also fair skinned and English. But he was mean to me, while Samridh was nice. We were younger then—
My parents discussed the absences with the teachers. And the anger too of course. I would lock myself into a room and hurl things against the wall. I smashed that bust of Obaid Nana. When I was in those moods only Nani could get me out, not even Ma, who had taken to boycotting me when I stayed home from school and told Jyoti to do the same, in an effort to get me out and in there again. But she’d often cheat and give me sausages anyway. Pa hugged me and cried in the car — “I don’t know what to do” — just like Dadi would say years later…
The teachers suggested some activity in something I was interested in. That was planes. I made a chart, not my preferred format, and decked it out with planes of all sorts and information. They said they’d shown it to Mrs Kumar, who showed it to others and congratulated me—
Things went on. We got the budgerigars Romeo and Juliet, kept in the outside loo one winter they froze to death, blue and yellow. Powder blue and canary yellow. We buried them in gamlas. I remember we spread out their wings, cause they had never flown and now they would…
Things became all right with Padmini Parmeswaran. That was III-A, bright yellow classroom, stuff of III-A legend. Even for the saddest story, Hachiko, Zuben had a bright answer. That was the year of Sound of Music, flying squirrels and the Venus flytrap. Rahul held me by the throat and threatened me. Ma’am Padmini said I was someone she had never seen be mean or hurt anyone. What was nice was the others agreed—
It must’ve been around this time that Deepika Mendiratta shamed one of my friends, and brought him to tears, for wearing just about the wrong uniform. A long line of kids, one after the other, brought up onto the little stage in the skating area and made to cry. Later the magician performed there, once. He made milk disappear—
The black thing the green thing the brown thing. But III-A will always be bright and sunny and yellow with the sun, and Padmini’s voice like song…
Harish must’ve entered the picture somewhere here. I mean he had come before and gone again, back to Hyderabad, but now he was here for good. Roshan too of course – in fact he and I were closer then. Roshan Shariff, also from Hyderabad. Son of Dr A. Shariff and his mom. She gently had me eat 14 dosas one time and drink a whole glass of milk, all of it unprecedented. That was the day Roshan and I played badminton, and made exotic paper planes. My dada-dadi were in Hyderabad at the time and I suppose they reminded me of grandparents. Kind, gentle, humorous, unassuming — those words—
Roshan was brilliant. He told me about virtual reality and how they were working on a body suit and gloves that would freeze when your hand wrapped around something to give the feeling you were touching it. They still haven’t done that yet. When he left early in the 6th he was the only one to get an A in the difficult transition to middle school—
Of course I was clever too. They taught us about line segments and extending them point by point in either direction without end — a line. The two ends would never meet. So I tore out the paper with my line on it and curled it into a circle — “Ma’am? Isn’t this a line?” Radha Mukundan smiled her toothy smile and said “No, you can’t do that” — or words that meant the same.
Sangeeta Atri was different. Née Abott, she had a grim exterior, pursed, strict, unsmiling. The planes had smashed into each other at Charkhi Dadri. Bombs would be triggered at Pokhran again. Grim forebodings perhaps, or just personality, but that school birthday in the fourth standard was the most joyless I remember. We all sat there eating snacks out of our boxes, silent, not smiling, watching her eat. We look happy enough in the photo though—
But Roshan and Harish, I never was close to anyone so brilliant as them. That must’ve been the year, the last of junior school, when I met Ritwik. But the big event of the year was Arjun Jaiswal. Big, tall and accomplished, and a good boy, he became monitor soon enough. We developed a quiet bond. I had been sitting before then with Pheng Sokhomal Neary, who was from Cambodia, at the very back of the class where I couldn’t see the board, cause I needed glasses but hadn’t got them, didn’t want them, just copied out of Pheng’s notebook instead when I thought she wasn’t looking. I thought she didn’t mind, but one day she burst out laughing — “I copied it wrong, and you copied it wrong too!” I grinned and embarrassed, soon got my glasses with the golden frames. By then my power was minus 2, and while I could Suddenly see the planes again and identify the Atlas Airways 747 that came by every afternoon as the sun set, the stars were a disappointment. I had grown used to seeing Van Gogh stars, big bulbous blotches of light, not these cold pinpricks. Now of course they have grown bigger again, but you can’t always see any at all—
It was a dodge getting through the medical tests before I got my glasses. Many exemptions from the eye alphabet test, many explanations that specs were on the way. In those days it was prim Mrs Abraham who led the process, pointing us on to the scale and lowering the bar on to top of our head, but the coy and glamorous Ms Someone, with wavy hair and a big beauty mark, and deep red lips, who interviewed us as it were, and took it all down. They gave us our medical records after the last day of school — mine said, “Nails are dirty.” Reading it must have worked for my nails are better now.
I wasn’t quite ready to leave junior school. None of us were. It was a wet grey morning and a sad speech full of feeling that Ma’am Grover gave bidding us farewell to the other school building. It seemed a world away, a world apart. We had heard our principal Mrs Jyoti Bose was very strict. I had watched my sister cry preparing for her unit tests. We were told we were no longer children.
Later years it was always the Bank that took us closest to junior school. Couched in the side of the Bal Vatika, it had dot matrix printers, comatose staff and the ability to bring back time. I was often at the bank, or so it felt, with many things to do with late fees. At the time I grumbled inwardly at my parents’ carelessness and lack of interest, later she told me they weren’t always able to afford paying the fees on time. That was before he struck it big, in the VIIIth standard, and I hit puberty and suddenly made a lot more friends. Not unlike the others I suppose—
It was in the 5th that I started getting awards. Of course there had been the poem in the Springdalian when I was in II-A, called “My Beautiful Shoes” — I don’t remember it but the shoes were Woodlands, brown, a sort of suede and leather with impressive laces and edging and soles. I felt taller in them, more solid, I guess I felt like a man. But none of this must have come through in the poem. Which they illustrated with a horrible Victorian Word Art style illustration of buckled shoes with prim laces and sharp heels, in a glitter of stars. I had worn those shoes (the actual ones) on a school birthday with my favourite blue shirt and black jeans. I was beginning to queen…
Then there was the picture composition, which they read out in all the sections, describing a photograph of sunset silhouetting some black branches and things, over water. I remember I used the talking device — “Look at how they . . . isn’t it beautiful?” That word keeps coming back to haunt me.
I also danced. We were taken to the Iraqi school to celebrate Saddam Hussein’s birthday and I introduced the Rain Dance, its ethos and purpose. Ruchira, who taught us SUPW in a bare minimum manner, persuaded me to start by saying assalam aleikum, which I already knew how to do and the audience enjoyed. Coming back with the other dancers in the bus after dark, changing and discussing the performance when Vivek made us laugh, with the dim yellow lights on in the bus and the flowery scent of the Iraqi School is one of my most thrilling memories—
Despite my non-interest in sports all this added up to a special award, for Best All Rounder, Junior School. It was also the year of my first debate, we went to DPS Mathura Road, Nikhil Dewan and I saying whether “Parents make ideal role models.” I think I said no. But it didn’t matter, we were still too young to be writing most of it our scripts, and as Kusum Verma said when Jaishree Raghunathan took me to her basement office to try me out for reading the Annual Report that year, “His diction is very good.” Later of course debates would become more combative and involved, especially during interjections, but most people still weren’t writing their own scripts then—
I remember preparing for it with Jaishree Raghunathan in the library and I think Aditi Rao came to help out too — J.R was telling me how to go about it and I kept squirming, squirming cause I really needed to pee. She even asked me, is there something wrong, do you need to go to the toilet, but twice I said no. I even peed myself a little before she finally saw she would have to let me go herself. It wasn’t the only shade of what has been a lasting shame, reluctance or shame about shitting and pissing, bodily needs, unamenable quite to control. Never masturbation though, or puking—
When Roshan had left in the sixth after the first term I needed to make new friends. That was the year we saw three class teachers, when Mandira Bose told her hilarious ghost stories and Blank and I laughed harder than two people ever. Once in the computer lab he drew me a penis and said “U shaped valley” and we laughed, but then he said “Yar, I can’t stop thinking about it Aman!” Later in the 8th we would play Hangman or something with a timer, and as the other team’s time ran out and we were about to win, in the tension I bit him on the upper arm. “He bit me!” he told them, they were silent. That was where we’d all hit 13 and Jharna Basu said “You’re not a boy if you’re not mischievous!” and Arjun called out, “Ma’am, Aman’s not a boy!” I felt flattered by the attention of course. Not so much the occasional, very occasional words of chhakka, chowkha, you run funny. But there wasn’t much of that really in our school, or it wasn’t voiced. But as puberty hit and attractions took root, became public, the fear was real, and it still hasn’t quite gone—
A lot of my time in junior school was spent in the computer lab, around the matching teachers Usha Jain and Ushma Khanna. There was LOGO — “event driven programming,” as my dad non-explained — and random games for children. But the cool kids were playing Starcraft, I think. Another regular event out of the classroom was when we’d troop to the music room and sing with Papiya Paul and her orange harmonium. The carpet and walls I remember pink, and Papiya (Papiiha, Papita, Papaya) as we called her had quite the moustache, and always, always the vivid Hindu calendars or posters in the style personified by Raja Ravi Verma, staring. Those sunlit tops of clouds and dark jungles and lightning storms were our romantic sublime, and in me they still provoke a deliverance of emotion, in which nothing is safe and you are not you—
It was one of these teachers about whom I spread this gleeful story, which may have been true — I saw her coming out of Mrs Bose’s special bathroom once and she had left a little black turd on the floor. We had these little ways of getting back at the teachers we knew didn’t like us, or were mean to us, and but some big ways. Like so-and-so batchmate, who exploded those aloo bombs all over school in our final year, and told me later he hadn’t told me cause he thought I would tell. That hurt—
But I did always like authority when it was given to me. There was no scope for it at home. Nothing rankled so much as being on the receiving end of authority, of being told what to do. I felt I deserved better — equal consideration, equal negotiation, a request some give and take. In fact I thought we all did — except when I was hungry or horny or angry or lonely yet had the chance to throw my little weight about. I wonder what good it did us to have women teachers. Probably protected us from molestation but it got me used to seeing women in a mother or teacher or sister role. Sex was around, there was no sex too, we knew that midway through school, but friendship between the two sexes that we recognised must’ve been frowned upon, cause there was so little of it then. I hope there’s more sex and friendship happening in school—
Blank unbuttoning his shirt is perhaps the first sex dream I remember. And ___ looking behind at me and smiling of course. There were many more later but these stand out…
One Sports Day, our first at Talkatora, I was focused on ___ but otherwise just alone and wondering when blankblank, who had been giggling closely with Gunashrit and Ishan came over. He was always the sweetest to me. Like pulling free a flower he came to me and asked about hair, and armpit hair, and did I have any? I shook my head. “Will you show me?” he said, gesturing with his own arm in a half-shirtsleeve but not quite showing. I knew the other two were watching so I said no…
Then there was the other Sports Day much later, when ___ took me to a bus to change out clothes. I’d seen them in just their underwear before, at Chhattarpur — his was white and his was navy blue — we three were the only ones in the room, I had lingered, maybe they had too — “I know what underwear you have!” he cried triumphantly to him, who just smiled and looked (I think) hetero-uncomfortable. “Marks & Spencer, something something!” he finished and waggled his crotch. They both stood bare and beautiful in the bright sunlight, standing on one of the beds. I stole what I was gaping throughout and squirmed uncomfortably at this point in my frayed and purple VIPs and my brown skin—
We found ourselves sleeping next to each other that night… Nothing happened in the dark. We were raising a ruckus in the boys’ room (both the teachers slept with the girls,) and till Sharmila Majumdar showed up as “the lady with the lamp” we were like in a camp, unsupervised, invisible, just laughing and talking — “Aman!” “What?” “Are you sleeping?” “Yes!”
That was the time I ran forward to drop a catch - and they laughed but only Ankit was nice enough to tell me “You run in such a funny way.” Others would tell me that too years later, but in the interim during a PT test with Aparna — a competition, a race, a medal, a girl to beat — I consciously tried sprinting like Trinity in the Matrix had done and Ritwik said “You were running in a very attractive way.” — I lost
Or was it the after year, when Mitsu Soin was there and Sikandar came to chat with us while I was gearing up to compere, for one of two times ever, the evening entertainment, for Bose and Mrs Kumar’s family and the British couple — we reprised the rain dance or peacock dance then, or something with those elements, and just for a second or two I let myself go and danced as I wanted, and later blank would say “Aman, you looked very… happy when you were dancing!” We used to talk on the phone a lot. I remember dialling the number. and always the beat of silence before the reply, an impression I rather liked to create on parents—
Praapti did an accurate impression of me that time, sticking my nose up and saying, “Jeezus Christ!” sauntering with unbroken arms. I couldn’t take anything in good sport then, especially from girls and called out, “Very Bad Impression!” sounding exactly like she had done and proving myself wrong in the silence. But that’s all in the past now…
We couldn’t stop the tide, the rushing river. A year felt like forever, each with its own texture, colour.
Photographs with thanks to Ipsita Kumar and Simran Kalra Yashpal