Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Life in a Crowded Red Bus

 Buses have been an inalienable part of my life. Right from when I was a baby to the present, I have relied on them as a means of transport. In fact, it is the vehicle in which I have travelled the most. Inevitably, a multitude of strong memories and emotions are tethered to this red giant on wheels. I have been witness to and have experienced pleasant, funny, embarrassing, distressing, painful, irritating, obnoxious and even scary incidents during my journeys.

A quick primer about private buses in Kerala. They are mostly coloured bright red. Unlike other states in India, there are very few public transport buses available to commute within the city, so people rely on these bright red buses on a daily basis. Interestingly, they are not numbered route-wise but have names that I feel, give them a human touch. St.John, Hasnamol, Arafa, King, Mangalya, Jyothis, Nawaz and so on. So if you overhear someone at the bus stop saying they’re waiting for Aishwarya, in all probability it is the bus they are waiting for. Some times when seen from a distance they even seem to look human! It amuses me how my psyche fabricates humanoid images of these buses. Some look depressed or have a frowning face, some have huge nostrils and some others are decked up like a bride during festivals.

Having travelled so much in buses it would not be fair on my part to brush aside the people one encounters in them- most importantly the driver, cleaner (fondly called kili which means bird in Malayalam) and conductor (ticket collector). They are too conspicuous to miss with their numerous avatars ranging from friendly, kind and helpful to flirts, oglers, gropers and heartless beasts. Young, old, middle aged. All kinds. Then of course there are my co passengers- babies(crying or sleeping), children(school going, armed with heavy bags), working women (bathed in coconut oil, hair dripping with the oil-water emulsion), college students (well dressed, ready to flash their student travel concession cards), fish mongers and labourers (with their pots, basins, baskets and tools) and many others with their own stories of joy and grief.

Each time I step into its threshold I get whisked away into another world, a world bubbling, fuming steaming within the confines of the flaming red chassis. With not an inch to be spared, the overcrowded bus speeds away like a lunatic, least concerned about other beings on the road. Trapped inside and suffocated by the various smells and carbon dioxide laden puffs emanating from my fellow passengers exacerbated by my short stature, I make a desperate attempt to stand on my toes gasping for some fresh air. In utter disappointment, I withdraw my attempts as the slightest movement invites devilish glares, scowls and tch-tchs from the aunties poised to attack with their elbows outstretched. How can I forget those days when I helplessly watched the bus speeding past my destination due to my inept jostling skills? Or the days I scrambled out of the bus, my hair a total mess, my  duppatta caressing many a confused head as I tugged at it waiting outside the window for some benevolent stranger to throw my bag out and for another to catch it promptly and hand it over to me.

On many occasions middle aged men tried their luck in touching, pinching or pressing themselves on to women “by mistake”. Sometimes I watched helplessly, at other times I was rescued by safety pins and high heels. Infatuated drivers and cleaners sometimes refused to accept the ticket fare in spite of insistence. Once, a lady nearly fell off the moving bus as it raced ahead impatiently even before she could alight. There have been pleasant incidents too. Those lucky days when I managed to get a seat and travel comfortably, when I was helped by a lady in picking up my wallet that I thought was lost in the crowd and those days when I got to sit with friends enjoying a conversation about the most mundane of things. The luckiest day when I reached college alive and safe having travelled on the foot-board with only my feet inside, torso and head getting drenched in the merciless monsoon showers, my hands clutching the rails as if holding onto my soul which could slip away any moment.

On Saturdays and holidays I would get to sit by the window and tap my feet to the tasteless music being played by the driver, savouring the sights along the road and the breeze on my face. A luxurious gift that ignited many thoughts. On those days I often compared the journey to life. There is a beginning and an end. Many things happen between the two. People come and leave. There can be good experiences and bitter ones, some that make us happy, others that teach us a lesson. Some people and things stay with us throughout. Others depart when it is time. Some come very late in life but leave their indelible mark. Some others are never noticed. Some may have been worth noticing. In the end, however pleasant or bitter the journey, one has to move on with renewed hope. A new journey, a new beginning....a new life.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Lesson 1 for the newly wed: Advertise

It was the beginning of a new academic year. The entire school was back after a refreshing (or not so refreshing) break. It was my first year at work after marriage. Many of them at school knew about this as I had invited them for the function before we broke for the holidays. As I entered the school office I found it strange that after the expected “Congrats!”, “How is married life?”, “How was the honeymoon?” and “How are your in-laws?” people started giving me deadly looks. I cringed as they scanned me from head to toe.

Head: Sindoor and Bindi missing.
Neck: Mangalsutr/Thaali missing.
Hands: Bangles missing. Ring missing.
Toes: Toe rings missing.

Too many things missing, much to their discomfort. I have always hated jewellery especially gold. So without them I felt absolutely normal and comfy. As I smiled at every one and asked them about their holidays, I got weird responses like

“At least the mangalsutr, can’t you wear it for your husband’s sake?”
(Is my husband’s fate sealed in a few grams of gold hanging from my neck?)
“Girls these days!”
(Yes girls these days at least try to think with their own head rather than the moral policemen’s)
“Your husband or at least mother-in-law didn’t say anything?”
(They have better work to do than police me)
“How will people know whether you are married or not?”
(I don’t display labels of any other relation on my body. Apart from being a wife, I am a daughter, granddaughter, sister, aunt, friend and many others. If I displayed a symbol each for the endless relations, I would collapse under their collective weight)
“People will always respect women who wear the symbols of marriage”
(People should respect others based on qualities for which he or she can take credit. One’s religion, sexuality, appearances etc. don’t qualify for that)

I dodged most of them with smiles though I had answers and better questions with me. It would just fall into deaf ears. I should have anticipated this. I was under the notion that times had changed and people were more accepting of fresh ideas and that patriarchy did not exist in educated people’s world at least. Too na├»ve. I was in no mood to share my ideologies with them. I headed to my class. Only to dodge similar questions repeated by gen next with an added “Your husband has allowed you to work even after marriage, so…”
(I am an adult, the constitution says I can vote someone into power in the Indian democracy, I can get a driving licence, can get married and do so many other things. But wait, someone has to allow me to work, take care of my parents or wear clothes of my choice?)

Of course, I don’t intend to blame the children who said that. Their words reflect the society we live in. Children imbibe ideas and notions from adults around them. It is a different story if women did these things of their own free will, but most often there is an invisible but undeniably present mental filter in our heads (especially after marriage) that doesn't allow our values and ideals to permeate into our consciousness, instead lets them fade into the past as distant memories that would soon be forgotten. In the struggle to get into the good books of others, we become a new person, living someone else’s dreams, thinking like someone else, one’s identity inseparably tagged to someone else’s.

 I am myself first. I love the person I am. Happy the way I am. I have many dreams for myself. Without having to feel guilty. Only then I am ready to don the role of daughter, sister, friend and wife without losing myself.

P.S: Many people have argued with me saying that these are part of our culture, so we should accept them without questioning. I believe culture changes, it evolves. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get rid of many social evils and malpractices like sati. Some others tried to give me scientific reasons behind sindoor, toe ring, bangles and thaali associating it with reproduction and sexual life. Just a gentle reminder that people from other cultures too have been there, done that!

photo credit: askmir via photopin cc

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Let’s talk: Alone amidst the crowd

Image courtesy: Google

He was the tiniest in my class. Cheeky, lively and bubbling with excitement all the time. Except when there was writing or reading to be done. He was an amazing actor, sometimes volunteering to act out parts of stories that I read out in class. I would often catch him strumming an imaginary guitar when the entire class was busy multiplying gigantic numbers or doing the “Chammak challo” act as I cleaned the black board. He could hardly read and write but loved listening to stories. Once, while the rest of the class was playing, I caught him sitting alone in class. I decided to give him company and invited him to a game of dumb charades. He was not in the mood.

Boy: Akka, I want to tell you a story.
Me:  Really? Which one?
Boy: No, not from any book. I made the story in my mind.
Me: Wow! That’s nice. Would you care to write it out in your book?
Boy: No Akka. I hate writing. I don’t know any spellings.
Me: Ok. Tell me.
Boy: There was once a boy who studied in a good school. He never listened in class, never did homework and was very, very naughty.
Me: Hmm..
Boy: He loved to sing, dance and act. But he hated English and Maths. His teachers always scolded him. He had no friends. Nobody liked him. His parents and sisters always punished him.
Me: Oh! That’s sad.
Boy: Yes. The boy felt very sad. He was alone all the time. One day he did not go to school. Then all his classmates missed him. But he was not at home too. His parents were worried. They searched for him everywhere. All over the earth. But they did not find him.
Me: Where did he go?
Boy: He made a rocket and flew away to another planet where nobody could find him. He was happy to be alone in that planet. Everyone on earth cried because they missed him. But the boy never came back.
Me (shocked): That is a sad story. The boy seems to be nice and maybe he WAS loved.
Boy: You know who that boy is, Akka?

I had guessed by then and enveloped by sadness, but wanted him to speak.

Me: You say.
Boy (laughing): Me!!! So easy it was. You didn’t know?!

I was shattered. The words “You didn’t know” kept echoing in my head. I had nothing to say. As a teacher, as a part of the education system, I had failed. The system has no room or time for emotions and sentiments of students. No room for diversity.  Whoever heard of testing students in acting and storytelling skills when there was so much to learn in Maths, Chemistry, History and Literature? So what if a student was lonely, stressed or depressed? In the mad rush by students, parents and teachers to complete the syllabus, prepare for exams, flaunt good grades, meet deadlines and targets, there seems to be no space for such beautiful wild flowers to blossom. They perish, their beauty unnoticed among the endless fields of similar looking flowers. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Let’s talk

I have always believed strongly in the benefits of open dialogue and conversations with people right from childhood. It not only helps us share ideas, sort out messes, but also creates warmth between people, sometimes forging strong bonds that last a lifetime. As a child I have had infinite conversations with my parents (especially my mother) that have shaped me into what I am today. And as a teacher too I was able to partake in so many such open talks with my students that have made the bonds between us unbreakable. These informal talks vary greatly in their purpose, content, age of the student and duration. Many a time they have helped us solve problems (either mine or the student’s), bring out hidden potentials, console, encourage, cooperate and clarify. Often, they appeared pointless and unproductive superficially but beneath the layers of numerous spoken and unspoken words was the desire to share feelings, thoughts and worries with a loved one. Yes, just plain sharing sometimes lightens the heart and brings so much cheer that the problem itself becomes insignificant.

Sharing some of them here.

Image courtesy: Google

Student: Vidya Akka, I want to talk to you.
Me: Is it urgent? What is it about?
Student (Hesitant): Err..not in front of others.
Me: Sure. Feel free to come to me whenever you have time.
Student: Thanks Akka. Next hour?
Me: Let me check my time-table. Hmm…..yeah I’m free, you will find me with some books on one of the benches in the playground.

The student leaves with a smile and comes back promptly the next hour.

Me: Hi, come and sit.
Student (looking away from me): I did something very bad.
Me: So you did something, but now you feel it wasn’t right.
Student: Yes Akka.
Me: Ok. What did you do?
Student: I browsed some “dirty sites” on the internet and now when I open my books to study I get easily distracted. I want to study well, but feel like seeing them again.

I was a little surprised. Yes, not shocked or angry. Surprised, because I had never expected a boy in his teens to share with his female teacher things that were usually kept secret among friends. At the same time I also felt glad because one, the boy realized he had done something he did not want to do, two, he was honest enough to confide in an adult whom he trusted and three, he still had not lost his focus and wanted to work hard.

Me: Don’t worry. It is quite normal for a child of your age to be curious. There is nothing wrong in what you felt or did. It DOES NOT mean that you are a bad person. You are growing into a young man, so your body, mind, emotions and relations evolve. It is quite natural. You may have noticed many changes yourself by now. Right?
Student (now looking at my face and smiling): Yes Akka. I thought you will scold me. I went to the computer lab when no one was there and ……
Me: It does not matter now, does it? I don’t want to know. But just remember that it is not allowed in school. Got to follow school rules right? Of course, I don’t have a say in what you do outside school but you have seen it for yourself. Not being able to focus…
Student: I will not do it again. I feel good talking to you.
Me: Sure. Try not to. Not in school. Remember that some of what you see or read may totally misguide you. If your friends are doing it, you could tell them too. Adolescence is a truly wonderful period in one’s life. New burst of energy and creativity, new ideas and points of view, exploring oneself and others…..make sure you make the best of it. And enjoy whatever you feel…the adventures, the crushes, the jokes..everything...just stop to think once in a while..
Student (laughing): Beautiful girls, crush….
Me(teasing): I know who you are talking about!
Student: Akka!!! Really??
Me: Yeah, don’t worry, it’s our secret.
Student: But how? When? Who told you?
Me(winking): Even I was once a teen you see.
Student: Thanks for talking to me Akka. I feel better. Bye, I have class now.

Me:  No regrets, no guilt. You are a nice guy a good student too. Bye.

(Coming soon…another interesting conversation!)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Celebrating love

Red roses, love notes and an occasional kiss and hug. Gifts of handmade cards, paintings and sketches, candies and toffees. Very often, to add a traditional touch, fragrant jasmine flowers to embellish my black curls. No they were not from my boyfriend (who is now my husband). They were all from the children I taught. It was literally like celebrating Valentine’s Day every day! Given with a lavish dose of love and affection, it was really difficult to say “no” to the eager kids who would peep into the office room early in the morning, waiting for their favourite teachers.

I was one of the earliest to reach school. An extreme obsession about punctuality that sometimes infringed upon insanity. As I walked down the way to school many children, babies to teens would join me and soon we would be a chattering mob marching through the school gates. Children would run up to me and give me flowers they enthusiastically plucked that morning. Roses (from their parents’ flower laden carts), Bottle brushes (a flower true to its name), Jasmine, Hibiscus, Marigold and what not! Some insisted that I wear it on my head immediately. The slightest hesitation on my part would have serious repercussions. No, not sulking and crying. The flower would be snatched and forcefully thrust into my locks. I had no right to protest. Just for this time of the day, they were the teachers and I, a meek student. I did not even want to picture myself with roses, jasmines, leaves happily perched on my head.

So after all the pampering, I headed to my class looking (and smelling) like a puja room or wedding hall if you like it. But the kids thought I was beautiful. The more flowers I had, the better I looked. Throughout the day- during break time or a free hour, children would check the back of my head to see if I had dared to take away the flowers given with tonnes of love. At these times I often remembered my mother, aunts and grandmother and the struggle they had to go through to make us cousins (the girls’ gang) wear some flowers on our heads during festive occasions. I hated the fragrance of jasmines or rather its stench. Over the course of the day they turned brown and presented a pathetic sight. Yuck! How I hated flowers in my hair. How proud I felt when my mother let out an exasperated “do whatever you want” when I refused to accept flowers. And now these kids had absolute control over me. They had the “childlike innocence” advantage.

 Some days I would take them off my hair and put it in my bag. Imagine walking around in jeans with a floral helmet! I didn’t have the heart to throw them.  I would often wonder what to do with them. At the end of the academic year, I had a box full of dried flowers. A potpourri of the children’s feelings for me. Something I can keep revisiting when life seems boring or difficult. Opening the box unleashes the scent of sweet memories in which I can drift along, feeling loved. I don’t need Valentine’s Day.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Bringing in more sensitivity in celebrations

We Indians boast of an unparalleled rich and diverse culture with great pride. The infinite festivals celebrated across the length and breadth of the country all through the year are vibrant manifestations of this cultural richness and diversity. Festivals break the monotony of the mundane chores we get engaged with in daily life. So aptly they are a treat to the senses- the bright colours, lights and shimmer, the sounds, smells and tastes.

However they have an ugly side too, that stealthily but definitely threatens our environment and fellow beings on this planet. The copious amount of waste generated, noise, smoke generated during such celebrations poison our environment often culminating in irreparable damage. Taking a closer look at our activities during such occasions will help us identify  potential threats and adopt an alternative strategy that is eco-friendly and at the same time maintains the festive spirit.

·         Bursting of crackers
In India, most festivals are celebrated by bursting crackers, lighting sparklers, flower pots etc. Though they look magnificent against the night sky, they pollute the air with smoke and soot. Many metal salts are added during their making to give various colours. The noise produced disturbs children, the elderly and animals. It disturbs sleep and even causes hypertension and respiratory disorders. After the festival, streets are strewn with the harmful trash generated by crackers. Apart from the pollution they cause, many firework factories employ children who face many occupational hazards.
Alternative: Families can resolve to stop the use of crackers and fireworks. Children will surely understand, most often it is adults who need convincing. Instead, families and neighbourhoods can get together and enjoy a night of singing and dancing. Older people too can be involved in sharing stories and traditions with the young.

·         Use of artificial colours and dyes
Who can enjoy Holi without colours? Diwali too is incomplete without colourful rangolis. But what if those colours were deceptive masks worn by deadly chemicals hazardous to humans, capable of triggering a host of health issues? At the end of a Holi celebration we get bathed in harmful dyes that can even cause cancer. A huge quantity of water gets wasted and the water balloons amount to non-biodegradable waste that pollutes the soil.
Alternative:  Use natural and organic colours like haldi, henna etc. Tone down the excitement to use buckets of water to mix colours. Be creative and dye your clothes with plant extracts for a change.

·         Immersion of idols in water bodies
During festivals like Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi thousands of  painted idols of deities are immersed in ponds, lakes and rivers along with flowers, plastic garlands, glittering decorations and even food items. Idols made of plaster of Paris pollute the water and alter its chemical properties. The colours from these idols leach out harmful chemicals, dyes and even heavy metal salts. Plastic waste is non-biodegradable and chokes aquatic life. The flowers, leaves and other puja items rot in the water and serve as ideal breeding grounds for microbes that either spread diseases or reduce the oxygen content of the water body. Needless to say the lake/pond or river chokes to death.
Alternative: Encourage children and others in the family to make unbaked clay idols (as DIY craft projects) that can be immersed in a pail of water or nearby water body without causing pollution. Idols can even be reused every year. It also teaches children to be environment conscious individuals.

·         Wastage of electricity
Festivals and fairs witness indiscriminate use of electricity to light up homes, streets, halls etc. Loud music throughout the day has become the norm. To compensate for the overuse, power cuts become frequent after a festival.
Alternative: Use a small number of oil lamps, candles or energy saving LEDs for lighting. Use lighting only when necessary.

Generation of trash
The clean up after a festival, be it in a home, street or locality yields piles of mixed wastes that cannot be recycled or reused. The waste piles contain leftover food, flowers and leaves from pujas, paper and plastic cups, plates and spoons, decoration, cardboard boxes of sweets, clothes and gifts, gift wraps etc. Even during national festivals, plastic flags and sweet wrappers litter schools and offices.
Alternative: A little thought on what is really needed and what can be avoided prior to the festival will reduce a lot of waste. Reusable plates and glasses or eco-friendly plates can be used. Puja thalis can be reused. Decorations can be made from materials available at home. If we take that extra step to segregate the wastes, it will be easier to recycle them. Wastage of food can be avoided by taking and serving small helpings. Flowers, leaves and vegetable wastes can be composted. Involving children is the best way to spread the idea of Reducing, Reusing and Recycling.

Meaningless usage of edible items in rituals
Be it turmeric smeared rice used as akshate ( for blessing) or ash gourds filled with red dye that are smashed during Ayudh Puja, many rituals make use of food items that later get wasted. At a time when the world population and declining agriculture is driving us towards food crisis, it is certainly not acceptable to continue following such traditions where precious food gets wasted.
Alternative: Revisit ancient customs and rituals instead of mindlessly following them. May be they were relevant in olden days. Find out their relevance in the present scenario.

Useless gifts
Gifting is very common during festivals. Gifts are purchased thoughtlessly and exchanged during Navarathri, Diwali, Christmas etc. Most of them lie unused or tucked away in a cupboard only to be trashed later. 
Alternative: Meaningful gifts that encourage environment friendly thought and behaviour can be given like books, plants or saplings. These need not be wrapped in plastic or paper, reducing the burden on or planet. Donate old clothes to the needy. Refrain from buying new clothes unless absolutely necessary.

Unhealthy eating
Festivals are inevitably linked to feasting. A great number of delicacies are cooked at home or bought from outside. Sweets with artificial colours, deep fried snacks and dishes bathed in oil and ghee look very tempting and inviting. In a country that is on its way to being the capital of all lifestyle disorders, this is an unhealthy trend.
Alternative: Healthy and tasty meals can be prepared at home. People should eat keeping in mind their lifestyle and health. Instead of sharing sweets, healthy recipes can be tried out and shared.

Unnecessary splurging
During festivals, people compete with others in the apartment/locality for putting up the best display/decoration/ meal. In the process a lot of money and material gets wasted. A lot of money gets wasted in buying new clothes, home decor and a list of not so necessary items. People often indulge in impulsive buying due to discount sales and offers during festival time.
Alternative: Get together as a group to celebrate festivals. Families can together make a single display (be it a christmas tree, golu, pookalam or rangoli) that will save time, money and materials. It will also foster friendships and spread the message of sharing. Plan a visit with loved ones to a nearby shelter or orphanage. Spread the spirit of the festival by sharing your time and gifts with them. Such humanitarian acts are the best ways to inculcate in children and youngsters important values which adults often complain are lacking.

So this festive season, let your creative juices flow. Reduce, reuse recycle, compost, donate, share and do just about everything you can to have a safe, eco-friendly and above all, a more meaningful celebration. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Wanted: Homely Girl for Broadminded Boy

She made garam garam rotis and paneer for him. He liked to eat out.

She broke into a sweat making gajar ka halwa and pakoras. He hated greasy food.

She ironed his clothes perfectly. He loved the wrinkles and creases.

She scrubbed herself clean and powdered herself. He loved the smell of sweat.

She went to the parlour to make herself attractive. He hardly noticed.

She flaunted her mangalsutra and sindoor. He found them too loud.

She quit her job to take care of his needs better. He found it too odd.

She cleaned the house. He felt the home smelled of a hospital.

She never asked him for any gifts. He waited for her to say what she wanted.

She mindlessly obeyed her in-laws. He wanted her to think and act independently.

She invited relatives on Sundays and treated them well. He wanted to go out for a movie.

She was unhappy that he never acknowledged her effort. Then one day her friend advised her to be herself.

She ordered pizza and chocolate mousse.
She did not clean, cook or iron.
She stopped her parlour visits.
The mangalsutra was locked away in the cupboard.
She applied for a job.
She made some plans for a trip together.
She was contemplating the idea of appointing a maid.

He cried foul and called his mother.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Blind Love

They were in love. They had decided to spend the rest of their lives together. Like any other couple their hearts were full of hopes and dreams of a blissful life ahead. They had accepted each other- the rainbow colours and the greys of their being. They walked hand in hand in the local park, dined out, went on romantic dates and drove around the city. They were truly happy.

They knew that their parents and others in their lives would never be happy about this relation. They knew all along that there would be a lot of questions to be answered, doubts to be cleared and whispers to be ignored. But they couldn't help getting involved. They felt it was a match made in heaven, with the blessings of all the powerful forces they believed in.

They decided to take the plunge and let their parents know. At first, there would be an outburst, but later they would definitely calm down. He was excited…and anxious. He left his office an hour early to break the news to his mother. She would surely understand. He could confide in her, the deepest of his secrets.

 As he reached home he saw his parents talking to each other animatedly in the study. As he inched closer to the door he went numb. It was as if all the warm blood running through him had suddenly crystallized into sharp needles that were tearing him apart from inside.  The words of his mother resonated in his head,” We will become the laughing stock of the town. Many people are suspicious. They have told me about their doubts. Our son is gay!”

G-A-Y. Could his life, his love story be confined and trashed mercilessly in those three wretched letters which when put together became synonymous to abnormality and shame? He silently turned away feeling cheated, defeated.

 Later his mother would show him some photos of eligible girls from which he would pick one randomly.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

How I became a mother

My first year as a teacher. Another hectic day at school. I sighed deeply staring at the hillocks of books in front of me that awaited scarring by my red pen, hoping to dispel all my worries through that single bout of strong exhalation. There was lot to be done. I checked my diary:
1) Prepare worksheets
2) Correct notebooks
3) Prepare flash cards and other teaching aids
4) Arrange the class cupboard
5) Mahalakshmi

I was in no mood to correct books, clean the cupboard or make charts and flash cards. Those could be done after school hours or even at home. My thoughts drifted to the tiny little girl in my class who always smiled (sometimes for no obvious reason), never did her homework and had a pathetic attendance percentage - Mahalakshmi. Too complex a name for a girl who struggled to read even two letter words properly at Grade 3. Mahalakshmi, the lazy girl who always wanted to visit the loo, blow her nose or drink water when I gave the class some written work.

 It was the last week of August and we were three months into the academic year, yet this kid was a mystery to me. She missed the very first week of school and that was just the beginning of the endless red “A”s I marked against her name in the attendance register. She hated reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kannada classes were a nightmare for her. Every teacher worried about her laziness and inability to do a simple sum, write a simple word, recite a simple poem or answer a simple question that most others in the class could do with considerable ease. Her grades in each test were deplorable. I watched exasperatedly as she ran up happily to collect her answer papers which always indicated zero marks. What was wrong with this girl? She didn’t want to study, was punished most of the time, never scored decent marks but loved coming to school! It was truly puzzling. What was it she enjoyed? What made her happy? What was she good at?

I got my answers on hot sunny afternoon as I climbed up the stairs with a handful of cardboard sheets, paper, sketch pens and other stationery to find a silent corner in the corridor to make some display charts for my classroom. The staff room was too noisy to let my stubborn creative juices flow freely. I heard some children screaming excitedly as they played games in the playground. I looked down and saw my class enjoying their P.E period. About to turn away and resume my work, I noticed a few girls poised for a running race. As the P.E teacher blew his whistle, all I could see were flailing pigtails and fluttering pinafores. Tiny feet kicked up the loose red dirt and clouds of dust rose creating a brown haze that glistened in the sunlight. Suddenly, I saw a tiny figure dashing ahead of all the others to reach the finish line. Mahalakshmi!

She declared to the world that she was the winner. She saw me leaning from the parapet, smiling and applauding her victory. I could see her blush, even from a distance. She was hugged by her friends, Vani and Kalpana. The trio ran around the ground hand in hand, celebrating her victory. For the first time, I saw a confident and determined Mahalakshmi and forgot all about her failures in the classroom.

 I decided to help her. I sat with her during classes, reading her stories teaching her numbers and the alphabet while her friends were busy writing essays and solving complex numerical problems. Gradually we became friends. She was happy to get a lot of attention from me, and I was glad I was able to help her. This continued for a few weeks and I felt the need to check how much she gained from this association. I tested her spellings by giving her easy 2-4 letter words and asked her to write a few number names. I was confident she would do well as both of us had put in tremendous effort. I was shattered when I saw her answer paper. Almost in tears, I marked a big red zero on the paper. It was my biggest failure.I checked my diary again.

5) Mahalakshmi

The remedial teacher had given up on her after two months of trying. That was after my big failure. Since no one knew what the problem was she was labelled” lazy and playful”. Some of my colleagues asked me to “leave it” and “not to worry about it” or “be happy that I did my best”. With a class of 31 students 10 of who had some learning issue or the other, it was difficult to give individual attention to an extent where it resulted in improved grades. I did not know what her problem was and I was against labelling children with fancy words like LD, ADD, ADHD, Special Ed etc. It sickens me to think of my children as problematic. In reality it is a problem with us adults/teachers if we can’t identify the interests and needs of a child and teach accordingly.

So totally clueless of how to teach her, I decided to find out a little more about the girl. Not to dig into the history of zeroes in her exam sheets, but to find the real her that unfortunately got smothered by worksheets, tests and projects. I got to know that she was under the care of her step-mother and father. She had a half-brother, who she had to baby sit when her mother was away at work. Her parents were labourers, illiterate but nursing big dreams about their daughter. From our conversation I realized that Mahalakshmi missed her mother terribly. She was still searching for shadows of her dead mother in her step-mom. She loved her brother a lot. Though she loved coming to school to play with her friends, her parents would often go to their native place, forcing her to be absent from school frequently. She was often bullied by other children as she was academically weak. She was still searching for answers to many questions in her personal life. Silly for others may be, but really important as far as she was concerned. I never imagined that a tiny tot could have such a heavy heart and so much emotional baggage to deal with. And she was braving all this with a sweet smile.
I realized that day that for some kids, coming to school was just to stay away from problems at home. Standing in front of me was a girl so emotionally troubled, searching for love, a mother figure with whom she would feel reassured and safe. And what did I do? Tried to help her learn spellings and to count when it made no sense to her. Tried to push her to do as well as others.  In the process I failed to see her outstretched hands, calling for help, calling out for a little love and care. From that day I never pressurised her to do anything. During my classes, she would sit beside me, help me distribute books, erase the board and do similar chores she liked to do.

Gradually, she started asking me for kindergarten level worksheets and would meticulously try and solve them. I would reward not her performance, but her effort with stars and smileys and stickers. I don't know if I did the right thing but she seemed to be a lot happier with this arrangement. As the year progressed, we shared a special bond. I encouraged and appreciated her when she won medals in sports. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do? Why test her Mathematics and English skills, when I already know she struggles in them?

We talked a lot during lunch breaks and she opened her heart to me. She cracked jokes, felt my dupatta, examined my earrings, gave me cards, sought permission to put jasmine flowers on my hair and sometimes kissed my cheek when no one was looking. She didn’t want the boys to tease her. I did not do anything to improve her academic status. I just let myself be her friend. We became so close that once she even demanded that I wear sari to school.

The academic year was coming to an end. There was no miracle. As I filled in Mahalakshmi’s report card with “D” grades in every column, two tender hands covered my eyes.

“I love you Vidya Akka. You are my Mummy. You HAVE TO be our class teacher next year. Otherwise I no talking you.”

The final bell rang and she left after the usual peck on my cheek, leaving me speechless. I stared with wet eyes at the tiny figure bobbing up and down as she merged with an ocean of students outside.