Category Archives: Childhood

“Aye, Shoo! Why are you talking?”

As a student in school, I was the Class Asshole.

The perennial backbencher, I would sleep, talk, or day dream. If it was Maths class, I was an ostrich, trying to bury my head between the others in class. If it was English, I was a meerkat, peering out of my hole, making some noise, grabbing attention. For the other subjects, I generally switched between ostrich, meerkat, and hippopotamus.

In our school, talking was a crime. I swear. Students would get report cards sent home with the remark – “He talks a lot” or “His marks will improve if he reduces his talking”. Once, my friend got a remark saying he was getting spoilt because he was talking to me.

The whole thing pissed me off. I mean, what is the big deal about talking?

But then, that was our school. Where talking was among many other grave crimes – entering another room, whistling, singing a film song, and reading a book.

Of all these, it was this big deal about talking that pissed me off the most. I mean, children are children. They will talk. And when the teachers would ask me ‘What do you have to talk so much about?’, I would feel like screaming, ‘I’m not a goddamn 40 year old, things still surprise me.’

There are a million things that a kid would want to talk about. How do you explain to him that Pythagoras’ 2500 year old theorem is more important than the hot girl in class? How are Harappan excavations ever going to be more important than his favourite cricketer – his personal hero?

So I kept on talking, and got thrashed like a carpet seller thrashes his carpets to clean them. I have had sticks broken on me, been pinched, slapped, boxed, and once, even been given a langdi by the hostel warden.

The sad part is, most people from my school still think greatly about the way we were brought up.

The sadder part is, I never really stopped talking.

The saddest part is, the teachers never got it, and went on thrashing.

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Now, life has this way of screwing you over in such a beautiful way that you can’t help smiling.

After all these years, after all these jobs, I teach school children in Kurnool. Classes 5 to 8.

And I have to deal with the exact, same issues that I faced when I was a student.

I never shout, or raise my hand. So I am the cool teacher.

I smile, I crack jokes, I encourage the silent students to speak, and spend half an hour before every class, thinking of the most interesting way to teach that particular concept. Through stories, quizzes, videos, or games. Also, every now and then, I give them two minutes to discuss, so that they can blurt out that thing that’s on top of their minds, and on the tips of their tongues.

And in spite of all this, I find that some of the kids aren’t interested. Some of them are talking to the person next to them, others are looking out of the window. Some are staring at me blankly, like the kid from Sixth Sense who sees dead people.

It drives me nuts. I am tempted to scream.

But it just needs a second to take me back to my own school days, and think about what I would have done. And I am calm as the Buddha all over again.

It has been five months now, and I can safely say that the students trust me a little now. They know I am never going to hit or shout at them, and this means they trust me a little bit. Over these months, there are two important things I have learnt.

1. Training and Sensitisation: In most schools, teachers are selected on the basis of their academic qualifications. But like Kapil Dev was miserable as the Indian coach, a great student is never going to guarantee a great teacher.

Even after securing the job, the teacher is never trained. Which means that in the first few years, there is some josh to be a good teacher. But without any sensitisation, after a point, the kids seem like ten year old tadpoles who can be made to toe the line by raising your voice. The ones that don’t, can be tamed by delivering a nice, tight slap. After a point, they stop seeming like children – with individual needs and concerns, and they seem more like a herd of sheep.

2. Assholes make better teachers: Most of the teachers in schools are the studious sort. The ones who never broke a rule, never spoke out of turn, and turned in shiny report cards at the end of every test.

How will these people ever know what it means to have something to say in class while the teacher is talking? How will they ever realise that for the kid, there are more things going on in the mind than angles and triangles? These teachers have lived such a life of discipline that they will never be able to empathise with the ones who are not reflections of their own ten year old selves. And that’s why, assholes make better teachers.

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So now, when a kid talks in class, I don’t say, “Aye, shoo! Why are you talking?”

I know why the kid is talking.

I try to beat the thought in his head, by putting in a more interesting one. And if I fail, it’s ok. I understand.

Because, as a student in school, I was the Class Asshole.

civics text book

HOW CIVICS BECAME HISTORY

Back in school, every subject would have its own set of ardent followers. Students who loved the subject, did the home work, and went about their roles as students dutifully.

Maths and Science was lapped up by the brilliant, the rankers – the ‘Ramu is a Good Boy’ prototypes who studied well and made parents proud and neighbours envious. The arty-farty group of the class would read English and languages. The geeks in class would love Computer Science.

Amidst all this, if there was one subject that no one truly gave a fuck about, it was Social Science.

If all the subjects were houses in Hogwarts, Social Sciences would be the Hufflepuff among them. There, but unnoticeable.

I think it also had a lot to do with the teachers who taught Social Studies. Maths teachers were strict, English teachers were sweet. Science teachers were Dr. Jekyll at times and Mr. Hyde at others. Social Studies teachers had nothing distinct about them. They would walk into class, do their work, and step out, all the while carrying an air of detached enlightenment.

And that’s really sad. Because Social Studies could easily be the most interesting subject taught at school. The sheer range that could be brought into it is vast, and could sensitise children to so many ideas at an early age.

But then, there is the NCERT. The National Council for Educational Research and Training, the body in charge of publishing stunningly boring books that reduce the most exciting years of a country’s history into dreary, brown pages of text, accompanied by a barely visible, grainy image.

It didn’t help, either, that the subject in itself was fragmented into three bits – each with their own set of weird teachers.

HISTORY:

If one were to make a history text book, there couldn’t be a better country than India to do it on. Home to the oldest inhabited city in the world, India has been the home to many civilisations, trades, wars, kings, queens, and their tombs.

There were gory wars, triumphant monuments, philosophical inscriptions, and so much more. The people friendly measures by Akbar, the brave wars by Shivaji, and the brutality of Alauddin Khilji could have been the stuff of exciting novels. Instead, they were reduced to mere pages of a book. Taught by a teacher who seemed to walking in her sleep and talking in her sleep.

In the later years, there were the World Wars, and India’s Nationalist movement. Again, apart from glorification of a few of our leaders, there wasn’t much context to put the facts into. No wonder then that these facts were merely reduced to something you mugged up for the exam.

GEOGRAPHY:

Now, with geography, we don’t have much choice. I mean, there is only one earth, and there are seven continents, and some 30 odd states in our country.

Working within these barriers, the NCERT came out with another outstandingly mind-numbing book. If we want to avoid alien invasion, all we need to do is release a Class 6 Geography Text Book into outer space. If an alien ship comes across the book, they’ll realise there is no point in attacking this planet.

Surprisingly, I remember only two words from all the Geography I learnt at school – Black Soil and Alluvial Soil. I can’t remember anything else that I learnt in Geography. Also, the fact that we had a teacher who would often mistake us for yaks and bring out his cane and whack the hell out of us, didn’t help my learning process.

CIVICS:

In my opinion the most important of all the three subjects, but it was given the least importance in our curriculum.

The amount of footage that Civics got was laughable. 10 marks out of 100, and 4 out of 25 in Unit Tests.

Seriously, who is going to study for a subject that counts for 10 marks at the end of the year?

Even if you skipped all the classes, did none of the assignments, didn’t attend any Unit Tests, and knew absolutely zilch about the subject, what do you lose? 10 marks. Big Fucking Deal.

I felt sorry for the Civics teachers sometimes. I always imagined that the Physics and Maths teachers must be sniggering at the Civics teachers behind their backs.

So, at the end of it, Social Studies became a subject to display your mugging skills. How much raw data you could swallow, and then how much of it you could spew on the paper. There was no analytical skills involved, no new skills taught, no real world connections to make. Nothing.

Zilch. Shunya. Nil.

Which is not to say that we fared badly at these subjects. Oh no, sir. We mugged up, stuffing ourselves with information of all sorts. And we puked it out magnificently, out surpassing each other, adding another 90 marks to our Final Percentage – that cruel determinant of everything our lives would be after that.

*******

Now, when I look at myself, and others from my generation, I realise how wrong it all was.

I don’t speak in Sankrit these days. I don’t count more than three digit numbers. I know nothing of the Periodic Table and show my little finger and leave the room when Science is being talked about. I do use English though, for my writing.

We have distorted notions of history, know practically nothing about other states and cultures, leave alone other countries and continents. We know very little about the electoral system, or what our roles as citizens are, and how we could make use of civic resources available to us.

If only Social Studies was taught better, it would have made my life so much richer.

Change the Game, Bend the Rules

Considering the spectacular way in which India is getting its ass kicked down under, I refuse to talk about the cricket.

Thankfully, our cricketers are engaging in other activities to take our minds off mundane things such as scores and results. Like raising fingers. Now, raising fingers is not a nice thing to do. But its ok to show someone a finger if they abuse your ‘mother and sister’. I mean, how can someone do that?

And why was such a ruckus being made about it? He just showed a finger. At least he didn’t walk into the stands and bludgeon the hell out of the spectator like Inzamam-ul-Haq did in Toronto. And that poor fellow had not even called his family names. He had just said the word ‘aloo’. Innocuous, if you ask me.

But keeping the finger incident aside, another issue that has become a juicy bone of contention is the UDRS rule. The Australian media seems to have problems with the Indian team’s stance on the subject. We are being called selfish bullies. But here’s the sad part, you guys. We have the money.

You can cry and crib about how we are a dominant power that is misusing their power. Sadly, no one will give a fuck. We are the USA of cricket. We enter a nation, bombard it, and step out. Apart from some cribbing, there is nothing much you can do about it.

And what is this UDRS thing? Cricket is a game where one fellow bowls, one bats, and the other appears in Fair and Lovely ads. Why complicate it by bringing in this UDRS-IVRS mumbo-jumbo?

And something or the other has been coming up all the time. A few months back, the ICC looked into the issue of batsmen taking runners out of the batting innings. For many like me, that was shocking.

I mean, what the hell does that have to do with anything? If running between wickets was so important, Mohd. Kaif would have been delivering the Bradman Oration in Australia.

I know there are those who will say that Saeed Anwar had Afridi run 130 of his 194 runs, and that Sachin ran through every single in his 200. Accepted. But when a dude sitting in a bar can predict a no ball, and players are shot by terrorists, there are clearly other important issued that need discussion. Of course, Sunil Gavaskar had an opinion on the issue, and also said that bowlers taking energy drinks from the boundary should be banned. What next? Banning players from having hand towels cos it might encourage them to throw in the towel during a tense match??

In a country where most of the ‘cricket’ is played with ‘tennis’ balls, all this doesn’t make sense. I don’t know about you, but when we played cricket as children, there were some flexible rules. Cricket is a gentlemen’s game, its not unruly like ice hockey.

In keeping with the theme of the sport, we had a lot of rules that made the game more relaxed, and more enjoyable. I have compiled below a few of those rules from the days when the gentleman’s game was still a gentle game.

Late Run: The batsman may not take a run ‘late’. This means that the batsman cannot take a run after the bowler has received the ball.

You see, many things could interrupt a match of cricket. The ball falling into a ditch, a senior throwing the ball away, or the players realising that there is a hole in the ball. Taking advantage of such situations was unethical, and such runs were called ‘Late Runs’. The opposing team could protest against this, and the run is not included in the total score.

Single Batsman: In the case of all the batsmen of the team getting out, the lone batsman can continue batting. He runs all the runs himself. There are special circumstances where the batsman might have to run to the bowler’s end and come back for it to be counted as one run.

The ‘Single Batsman’ rule was used when the team had one star batsman. In our days, if you owned the bat, you could truly “change the game”. This resulted in matches when all the batsmen would get out, but one could bat on till the end of the overs. (The ones who owned the bat never got out, of course)

International Wide: As children, not all of us knew how to bowl overarm. There were a lot of us who had half actions, However, to be recognised as a bowler, you had to show some effort. So the bowlers would run, turn their arm, and fling the ball. You couldn’t just stand, aim and shoot the ball. That was against the spirit of the game.

However, if you bowled a truly disreputable ball, like one that bounces at good length and swings towards fifth slip, it was called an International Wide.

Such a ball could be penalised with one run, or sometimes with two, depending on whose side the bat-owner was on.

Baby Over: With the absence of Cartoon Network and mission games, and the most exciting thing on television being Alif Laila, we were probably the last generation that played in the evenings.

The evening cricket was not just about playing cricket. Excelling in the game could make you famous, and win you lots of friends. However, the worst insult in the game would be the Baby Over.

It basically meant an over that was so bad that it had to be aborted in between. So if a bowler has bowled nine wides in three legal deliveries, the captain could call on another bowler to finish the over. This aborted over would be called ‘Baby Over’

One Tup Out: The batsman can be ruled out if a fielder catches the ball after it has pitched once (one tup), if the catch is claimed cleanly, and with one hand.

Our school had cricket fanatics. Guys who would cut and paste every picture of cricketers they found anywhere – newspapers, magazines, stickers, labels, t-shirts, and save them in a scrap book for years. Whenever we could, we would sneak in a game of cricket. The one tup rule was used when there was a constraint of space in the game. Like in a dormitory,

or the back of a classroom, or in the bathroom, or the corridor, or between the rows of benches in the classroom, or the side of a pitch where seniors would be playing.

Trials: The first ball of the first over. The bowler comes running in. The batsman defends, but the ball goes through the gate and hits the stumps. The fielders celebrate. The batsman, however, looks up, gives a Buddha-like smile and says “I told ‘trials”.

‘Trials’ was the rule that came to the rescue of batsmen who had the tendency of getting out on the first ball. Arvind Mukund should ask Sharad Pawar to ask the ICC to bring this rule into force. So, when a batsman asks for ‘trials’, he is asking the bowler to bowl him one ball, to ‘try’ things out. To see the bowler, his pace, the bounce in the pitch, the hardness of the ball, etc etc. After the batsman has faced the ball, he says ‘Reals’, and then the real game begins. Shopping malls have adapted the system of ‘trials’ as part of their strategy, but the real credit must be given to ‘mundu’ cricket, which magnanimously believes in giving the batsman a test ride before the real match begins.

Needless to say, owning the bat gave the batsman the luxury of having as many ‘trials’ as he wanted. Also, he didnt have to actually say the word ‘trial’. Just thinking it would suffice.

There were many such rules that were flexibly introduced depending on the situation/ground/age of the players involved. You see, winning or losing was not important. What was important was that the bat and ball were available for the next day’s play. The spirit of the game could wait till we were old enough to have beer.

Now, if the ICC is really serious about promoting the game to other parts of the world and making it player and spectator friendly, it should consider bringing in some of the rules.

Why should Australian guys have all the fun??

R. D. Sharma


I happened to meet a tenth standard guy a few days back, and he was studying for the new session that was to begin two months later.

He took out a few note books, all of them with brown covers and a label on them, and then, he took out a medium sized book with a white cover, that I could recognise anywhere.

“R. D. Sharma?”

He nodded, and smiled.

I knew there was more to the smile than met the eye.

For years, I had single-minded hatred for R.D.Sharma.

Whenever anyone asked me what my favourite subject was, I always said ‘Maths’. I didn’t really like it. I loathed it. But then the smartest guys in class always said Maths was their favourite song, and I followed suit.

I have this theory that in any given school, the cruelest, most evil teachers are the Maths teachers. They are the ones who beat the children, crack the evil jokes, and bully the guys who don’t study too well. Maths teachers are also the least favourite among the students, and some of the hatred against them rubs off on the subject too.

I have always had problems with Mathematics. I remember, I had answered Two Nines Are Nineteen in Class 2, and the Maths teacher stuffed a Natraj pencil in between my fingers and twisted it. I started using Apsara Flora pencils (that had round edges) after that, not that it did much for my Maths.

Maths is like a control freak, commitment seeking girlfriend. You cannot flirt with Maths for a few years and then cheat on it with Social Studies. With Maths, if you’re good at it, you are good at it for life. Similarly, if you are bad at it, you’ll remain bad at it. All your life.

I used to dread Maths classes, and made sure I sat somewhere at the back of the class. I kept my hand down and resisted the urge to crack wisecracks, as I knew that the teacher could cut me to size by asking me 13 table.

If there is anything I detested more than the sums, it was the way they were made to sound like something fun. Like, for example:

“Hi. My name is Rishab. Last night, my wife gave birth to a son. My age is ten more than than twenty times his age. In ten years, my age will be four times his age. What is my age?”

How exciting! I always wondered who these people were who made these sums. Couldn’t they think of anything else?

And then, there were the upstream-downstream problems. I am going downstream at 20 km/hr. If the speed of the stream is 10 km/hr, how long will it take for me to reach a place that is twenty kilometres away, if I’m travelling upstream?

Who gives a damn, moron? Why don’t you try taking a cab or something?

Or those geometry classes where we were asked to draw a 60 degree angle with a compass. If I have a shiny little protractor smiling up to me from the geometry box, why would I want to do it with a compass?

Or those trigonometry problems with the cos theta and san theta. Even jokes like “Alpha Q cos ur Sec C” couldn’t get me interested in them.

I do not have a single memory of childhood where I enjoyed a Maths class, and considerable credit for that goes to my Maths teachers. Ranging from pure evil to the totally nuts, they came in all sizes and shapes, and you never knew when they got into the moods.

The best Maths teacher I ever had was Venkataramana sir. Not that he made the subject totally interesting and understandable for us mathematically challenged ones. But he could crack the worst jokes in the universe.

So, at the beginning of his classes, we would request him to tell a joke. The entire class would go, “Please sir, one joke sir. What, sir? One joke, sir.” He would smile, and then say something like,

“You want joke? Drink Coke.”

Immediately, guys would begin to roll of their chairs, and fall on the floor, laughing. People would hold their stomachs, and scream at the top of their lungs. Like a seasoned stand up comedian, he never laughed at his own jokes, and smiled contentedly at the joy he was spreading in the world.

The rest of the Maths teachers, were evil. From poking a burning agarbathi into the cheek to whacking the daylights out of students, I have seen the John, Johnny, Janardhan of Maths teachers. And all of them went a long way in increasing my hatred for the subject.

Now in school, for every subject, we had a text book that was prescribed by the NCERT. There was the usual NCERT text book with its brown pages that adhered to the highest quality of toilet paper available back then. There were questions at the end of every chapter, and every year, the questions in the board exam would come from there. We could have happily studied those questions and passed the exams. But no.

Mr. R.D. Sharma created a wonderful little book for mathematics aficionados, so they could surf through exciting problems of various types. While it was possible for anyone to mug up the problems at the back of every chapter in the NCERT book, the R.D. Sharma book was a little treasure clove of smart little sums that made life miserable for people like me.

I was in the Maths Special Class. There were about ten of us. Each as clueless as the other person as to what was going on. Honestly, the teacher could have said ‘dhinka chika dhinka chika’ instead of ‘tan theta cos theta’, and it still wouldn’t make a rat’s ass of a difference to us. We were a stoned lot, nodding through explanations, and hoping we were not the one who will be asked a question. And the reason for my torture, would be that one Mr. Kishore, who was 7x times his son’s age, and yet the moron wanted thirteen year olds to calculate what his age was.

Throughout my high school days, I used to wonder who this R.D. Sharma was. What he was like, as a person? I imagined him as a man in Delhi who had retired as a school teacher and took tuitions for children at his home. There, I imagined him to be the sum total of all the evil Maths teachers I had ever had. A ten-faced, multiplication table spouting monster who branded children with iron rods if they didn’t know the answer.

My misery with Maths went on for a few years, and then it was the Grand Finale. The Board Exams.

I don’t really understand the fuss made behind board exams in India. For heavens sake, its just a bunch of fourteen year olds going to give an exam so that they can move on to the next class. Parents and teachers in India make it seem like we have to go to war.

The tenth standard guys in our school were given special timings, milk in the night, inspirational talks by teachers, and lectures of the ‘future’. There was a sense of going to battle, like a song from a J.P. Dutta movie. Students would touch the feet of the teacher before entering the exam hall.

I never really understood that. Quite clearly, the question paper has been set, and you only know as much as you learnt. Will some gyan get transferred from the teacher’s feet if you touch them before entering the hall?

Because of all the ballyhoo about the exam, I was wary of it from my ninth standard itself. Finally the day came when the dates were out. I read the list and my heart sank. We had ten days gap for the Maths Board Exam.

I knew I should have been happy that there were so many days. But I had a fair understanding of my abilities, and knew that no matter what I did, there was a certain upper limit to what I was going to score.

Quite expectedly, each gap day seemed worse than the previous one, as the dreaded day neared closer. The day before the exam was Shiv Ratri and as per the norm, we stayed all night in the mandir, studying mathematics amidst thousands of devotees singing bhajans of Shiva.

I remember making a long list of prayers to Lord Shiva the previous night. That I will never complain against anything ever in my life. I will never think bad things about anyone, and do bad things to myself thinking about those bad things. I will never waste food, and I will study well and make my parents proud.

The days after the board exams are hardly as peaceful as you would expect them to be. Parents, relatives, neighbours, friends, and anyone else who lives around you wants to know how you did, and when the results will be out, and what you will do next.

It hardly mattered what you told them, because they knew what they wanted to tell you anyway. Finally, our results were declared. Without looking at the name of the subjects, I looked at the numbers. Scrolling down, I saw it. Standing out against the others, sitting comfortably, was a fat 53. I looked at the subject and it was Maths. That was all I wanted to know.

I remember thinking how I would get rid of my R.D. Sharma book after the exam. Strangely, I didn’t do anything to it. I gave it off to someone, and it is probably still there. In tatters maybe, but still screwing the happiness of a fourteen year old somewhere in India.

A few days back, I was surfing the net and happened to remember R.D. Sharma and was browsing to see if anyone remembers him. Within minutes, I found it.

Someone had taken the pains to ask on Yahoo Answers if it was true that R.D. Sharma’s son had failed in Maths in the board exam.

It made me smile. I was not alone.

Srupen

There was a peculiar practice in our school. Everytime we went to a new class, or a new teacher came to teach us, they would ask us our names, and then tell us the meanings. Srupen didn’t particularly like these sessions.

Not only did no teacher know his name, they kept making random guesses, and asking him what it meant, as if he should know. It was not until another guy named Sakora joined the class, that the pressure eased on Srupen. His name, of course, led to others teasing him with names of a sister of a particular demon. Which of course, led to a fight later on.

Srupen was a smart guy. He managed to come within the Top 10 of the class, but that did not mean he was your typical teacher’s pet. In a school where talking/thinking/discussing about films was taboo, Srupen was our own Roger Ebert. I remember him explaining the stories of films like ‘Nuvvu Naku Nachav’ and ‘Kushi’, in vivid detail.

Srupen had some problem with his teeth and had to visit the dentist every two months, which meant he could go home. He would watch the latest movies, and come back and narrate the stories to us, in Dolby Digital, and Technicolor.

We were roommates in Class Nine, and it was one of the best rooms I have been a part of. Srupen had gone home for one of his dentist check ups, and returned with a stack of Filmfares and Stardusts. ‘Kaho Na Pyar Hai’ had just released, and I got a chance to spend some intimate moments with Amisha Patel, huddled up on top of the cupboards, bunking the evening prayers.

He also brought with him some audio cassettes, and we would listen to songs from ‘Nuvvostavani’ in the night after everyone had slept off. Eventually we got busted, whacked, and informed that there was no way they were going to give us a seat in the school again.

Srupen was clear he did not want to come back to the school and so, was hardly bothered about it all. Even though he did well in the exams, he found time to play cricket before the exam, and cut a cake to celebrate 100 days of ‘Kushi’.

He also had a temper and got easily irritated. When we saw him walking in the corridor, me and KSS would call out to him:

“Sru-pen”, and when he’d turn, we’d say:

“Red Pen”, or “Blue Pen” and run away. This pissed him off no end, and he would chase us.

After we passed out, I barely saw him. He went on to study in BITS Pilani, and then went to the US to do his masters. On his return, he would give detailed accounts of his trips to strip joints, much to the agony of the others, who relied on the internet!!

On Sunday, he died in a car crash.

Just like that.

I wish I had spoken to him more when he had called. I wish I had told him what an awesome person he was, and that I didn’t really mean it when I used to tease him. I wish we had taken more pictures, and I wish he was still there so I could comment on his pictures on Facebook.

I think its times like these when you realise that all that we crave and strive for, could vanish, just like that. That people around us won’t be there forever.

I’m sure you are having fun up there, buddy. Just a matter of time, we guys will be joining you soon.

“Sai Baba is dead, how do you feel?”

I have been asked this question incessantly over the last two days. Here’s my reply.

I was young when I joined the school in Puttaparthi. Too young to make sense of anything that was going on around me. My parents dropped a few hints, I loved the train journey, and before I knew it, I was in the school.

It was all a little too overwhelming at first. The mandir, the darshan, the bhajans, the lines, the lakhs of devotees. Before I could make sense, I fit in. There was a leitmotif of spirituality in everything in my life.

For ten years, my life revolved around Sai Baba and his teachings. I didn’t know if he was god or not. I didn’t have the time or courage to ask myself, and I didn’t feel the need to.

And then, I came out. It was when I realised there is a world beyond Puttaparthi. When I spoke of Sai Baba, they asked, “Which one? The bandana baba or the afro baba?” They asked me about my experience, and I could see the twinkle in their eyes.

“Does he create real gold chains?

“Did you get any?”

“Why doesn’t he create a huge oil pit so we don’t have to import it from Iraq and all?”

I began to question my own beliefs. Life took such a whirlwind spin after that, I barely had the time to think about such stuff. Somewhere along the line, I got disillusioned with religion, spirituality, and god.

It was not a conscious decision. I slowly realised that I only prayed when I was in trouble. Upon trying, I realised things turned out ok even if I did not pray.

I am not religious. Nor am I among those who say “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. I don’t know what that means. I just do what I like, and look for the maximum fun I can have while doing it. That pretty much sums up the philosophy of my life.

The years rolled on, and Puttaparthy became a fond memory. Of childhood, friends, and fear of sin.

Now, when people ask me how I feel about Sai Baba’s death, I don’t know what to say.

I don’t believe in God, but there are parts of me that have been irreparably influenced by Puttaparthi.

I never waste food. I am part of voluntary organisations that work for children. If someone needs help, I will do my best. Religion, caste and other such things don’t mean crap to me. I’m no Magsaysay nominee, but I will help a person in need, as much as I can.

Is he god? I don’t know. I don’t care. Is it even important?

It all depends on what you take away from someone’s work. While some say Sachin is the greatest batsman in the world, others say India loses when he scores a century. But haven’t we all called him god on our facebook status updates?

When I look back at Puttaparthi, it is not the huge mandirs that I remember. Not the string of dignitaries, the enviable fleet of cars, or the golden mandir in the ashram.

The image I remember is of a poor man waiting his turn in the general hospital. He is dark, his coarse hands folded in prayer, and tears flowing down his eyes.

I am educated, rational and pride myself for being responsible for my own fate. But that poor man?

His life has changed forever. His children and their children will have a livelihood. They will get access to drinking water, free medical treatment, and a good education.

If that man calls Sai Baba god, what is the harm??

Spare the rod, save a child

A few five year olds are waiting for their class to begin. They are chanting the class prayer before the period starts, and the teacher is lighting an agarbathi for the alter. Suddenly, the teacher notices that one of the kids in the first row opens one eye to look around. Immediately, the agarbathi is poked into his cheek. The child is scarred for life and years later, no one tells believes him when he says that it is actually a small dimple!

Like most of my generation, getting punished was a part and parcel of education. More so in my case as I studied in a spiritual school. Very early in life, we were taught about good and bad. About rewards in heaven and punishments in hell.

So when there is a lot of debate on the recent suicide committed by a child at a school in Kolkata, I was talking about it with people around me. My sister used to go to a tuition master and he was popular among parents because he used to hit his students. He used to go to Puri once in a while so he could a special variety of thin canes that were very effective. The parents would ask the teacher to resort to force if the student was lagging.

It worked for us. We listened to what the teacher had to say, did our homework in time. We thought thrice before breaking a rule, and had immense respect (and fear) for our teachers.

Look at the other extreme of the spectrum – the system of education in other countries, like the US. There, the teacher cannot touch the students. The standard of education is much lower than the standard in India. The children are worse behaved, and there have been numerous instances when children carry guns to school and begin shooting people.

Are we better off? Is it because we were scared of our teachers and this fear helped us in not committing mistakes? Most of the elders I have spoken to feel that this is indeed the case. One teacher also said that it is easy for us to sit and discuss morality in our homes, but a teacher who has to control a set of 35 young imps running about here and there, cannot do it by cajoling and coaxing.

However, there is a thin line between what is acceptable and what is ethical. Just because it is common does not mean that it is right.

Twisting a child’s ears, or rapping him on the knuckle might seem alright once in a while. But for a child who is not good at studies, it happens everyday, in every period. Not only is his self-esteem at its lowest because of the incessant pressure put on him by his parents, teachers, and peers, the beating adds to his complex.

And we are talking about children who are about ten years old. An age where academic proficiency does not mean success in life, and failure does not mean a child is doomed. Most of the time, the children who are hit are weak in studies. They are the silent, introvert children who are also bullied in class. The stronger, more popular children think that since the teachers are hitting them, it must be alright for them to do so too. The child gets drawn into a shell, and before he has even matured, he has become a shy, reserved young man.

Also, we have grown up in cities and towns, where we had to go to school no matter how strict the teacher was. But in rural areas, if the teacher hits the students too much, the child drops out of school. Is it really the way this is to be done?

If we think about our school days, each of us will remember this one teacher who was the most loved among the students. She was kind (and mostly taught English), she never hit anyone, and yet everyone listened to her when she spoke. We had one teacher like that. Her name was Loka mam.

Loka mam was my first English teacher. She never shouted at anyone, leave alone hitting. She was kind, always smiling, and always spent more time with the weaker children, rather than boost the ego of the children good at studies. If a child wasnt great at studies, but had a good handwriting, she would point it out to the entire class. She had a large repertoire of stories, and in free classes, we would ask her to tell us those stories.

She taught me in class 1, and then again in class 5. By then, I had developed a reputation of being a pest. But I was good at English and was developing an interest in the subject. Loka mam did encourage me in class. She introduced me to crosswords, and suggested books I could read during holidays. But she never tolerated my indiscipline. I remember one incident when I was caught in a huge fiasco and her class was going on when I was called to the Principal’s room. After her class, she came to ask what had happened. When I told her, she just looked at me, and I could see her disappointment. Since then, it was the look on her face that made me feel guilty. I made it a point to behave in her class, and generally avoided getting into trouble when she was around.

I have seen many teachers since and none of them, no matter how strict they were, never seemed to have as much control over the class as her. I sometimes think what was it that made all of us listen to her. We were never scared of her, she seemed incapable of hitting anyone. Why then did we behave? Why was English our favourite subject?

It was because with her, we saw that she wanted to teach us. She loved talking to each and every student, she wanted each and every child to do well. Children can be called immature, but even the most heartless child would not want to trouble such a person.

So do we really need caning?

OF SICKNESS AND WELLNESS

What would ‘Anand’ be if Rajesh Khanna was a healthy, 6-pack abs flaunting fit-fat guy? Or if SRK was Mr. Universe in Kal Ho Na Ho? I have always found something romantically tragic in being sick. Right from my childhood.

I was surprised when a friend told me that she experienced stomach-ache for the first time in her life. This reminded me of the days when I used to boast to people around me that I had not once in my life had a sprain, a fracture, stitches, or even a capsule. It’s still the same, except in Class 5 when our class teacher added me to the list of poor students in the class after my performance in Maths and I was asked to eat the Memory Plus tablets that were endorsed by Vishwanath Anand.

The reason I was drawn to being sick was all the attention and sympathy that the ‘sick boys’, (as they were called then in our hostel) got when they fell sick. My favourite teachers would check upon them regularly, they would be allowed to skip classes and prayer sessions, and they would get sweets, comics and chocolates. It was so much fun. If you got a fracture, you would be sent home, and if you got a contagious disease, you would be quarantined away in the hospital, away from the cruel world of mathematical tables and 6 AM prayer sessions.

Another reason that I liked falling sick was my eternal crushes on nurses. Though I still maintain that it is a myth and there actually are no sexy nurses in the world. Of course, there was Zeenat Aman in Don, but then she was masquerading as a nurse to get Don out of the hospital. And Don was Don. Even though the intelligence agencies of eleven countries were after him, they forgot that it was not only difficult to catch him, it was impossible!

My point is that there are no sexy nurses in the world. Only kind nurses and cruel nurses. Coming back to my childhood, I always wanted to fall sick and be fussed over. But thanks to the healthy diet and some strong White Blood Cells, I was more or less disease-free. Not that I didn’t try.

There was this really kind teacher at school who was incharge of medicines. We would rush to her for the smallest of ailments. Even something as silly as a mosquito bite. And she would pop in a few pills of unmedicated homeopathy pills in our mouth. When we went on doing it for some days, she would say, ‘This is serious. Turn around, I think we need to give you an injection”. We’d quickly say “No, ma’am. We are fine, and rush out of the dispensary”.

I was always looking for methods to injure myself or get a disease. Of course, the most obvious way was to climb up the giant wheel and jump from it. But I was too scared of that, and moreover I was always playing more genteel games like Ramayan and Mahabharat.

There was this guy in our class called Vishnu who had just recovered from mumps.I would keep asking him how he got it. May be he was sick of me pestering him or that he was interested in becoming a doctor back then, but he gave me a remedy. He said, “When you are in the bathroom, keep your hand immersed in the mug with the tap running for a lot of time, and you will get mumps”. Now, this would sound ridiculous even if you said it at Hogwarts, but for someone who believed he could get better at Maths by eating drumstick seeds, it sounded reasonable. So I would sit in the potty, my hand in the mug, and my mind full of dreams of mumps. After many such futile attempts, I got a cold but no sign of mumps.

Finally, at the end of the year, I successfully acquired Chicken Pox. While everyone was in misery, I was over the moon. We were taken to the hospital beside our school. There were no teachers to monitor us over here. And the best part was that the girls were in the room opposite us. We could sit in our rooms and look out of the door with hope, expecting one of them to step out. There were mountains behind us, and the seniors there would tell us amazing stories about how they killed snakes and ghosts that had creeped into the room. We were asked to give the annual exams from the hospital itself, and I remember Loka mam, my favourite teacher, gently hinting to me what the answers could be.

When my father came to collect me from the hospital, I was surprised to see that he was touching me and not staying away. When he told me the reason, I was crest-fallen. Like true love, Chicken Pox happens only once in a lifetime. I felt cheated!!

Maharaja Talkies

Nothing remarkable happened on 24.7.2002, it was just another Wednesday. But it was a red letter day for me. It was the first time I went to a cinema hall to watch a movie. Considering I was born in 1986, which was 2 decades back, it had to be special.

As a child, I was not allowed to watch movies even on television. The hottest woman I saw on television was Tara of Chandrakanta. My mother had even shut down the TV when the Draupadi Vastraharan scene was going on in Mahabharat, so you can imagine the levels of deprivation I was going through. The logic was simple. Going to movies was not in the list of activities that would help you to go to heaven. And so I was never taken to a cinema hall. I tried hinting about it a few times, but I might have as well asked for a trip to the moon.

Not that I hadn’t watched movies. We were shown films in our hostel. Mostly English films. And in the rare moments that my mother wasn’t at home or I was at someone else’s home, I used to catch whatever little on the existing movie channels. So, by the time I had finished my Class 10, I had watched a total of four hindi movies in my life.

Maine Pyar Kiya: (Being Diwali, my mother was busy in Puja),
HatimTai: (I remember Jitendra surrounded by girls doing aerobics holding duffs. Additional bonus, Dimple Kapadia in an item number).
Lagaan: Shown at school, with the Madhuban song edited out. Frustrated lot as we were, they might have wanted to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
Avatar: Rajesh Khanna is a mechanic who loses his hand while repairing an Ambasador and teaches his sons a lesson in caring for parents, with one hand. This emotional prostitute of a film was followed by a discourse on how children today do not care about their parents.

The idea of watching a film in a cinema hall thrilled me. My friends at school had described what the inside was like. I was told about the stall, the balcony, the whistling and hooting. It seemed like wonderland.

I returned home early and rushed on my bicycle to a cinema near my house that was screening Devdas – the bumper hit at that time. By the time I reached the hall, about 30 minutes had lapsed. I reached the ticket counter was looking left and right to check if anyone I knew was around. But all the people I knew were the kinds who spent Saturday evenings in Bhajans and would never come to watch a movie about a drunkard who falls in love with a prostitute and dies in front of his married lover’s gate.

The usher standing in front of the grill with his torch noticed me loitering around and asked me if i wanted a ticket. I said yes and he asked me to shell out 40 rs. If I had looked at the ticket counter, I’d have seen that the costliest ticket at that time was 22 Rs. But anyway, I was entering the hall for the first time and it seemed too good to be true. It was like a magical place. There were statues of fairies and posters of other films that were to be released soon. Even while climbing the stairs, I could faintly hear the dialogues. It felt like I belonged here.

I recalled my friends’ description of the balcony and the stall. Strangely, the man seemed to keep walking to the front rows. He kept walking till he reached the first row in the entire hall. He pulled a wooden bench from the side and asked me to sit. By then, I realised I had been royally duped. But what the heck? I was in a cinema hall.

I had to crane my neck up to look at the screen. Since I was closest to the screen, I felt like a fly sitting on people’s faces whenever they came on screen. SRK’s nose looked the size of a blackboard and everything else seemed magnified beyond recognition. If someone was at the left of the screen, I had to turn my head to the left and then look to the right again. Within 15 minutes, my neck began to hurt. I turned to look behind me. I was expecting to see people staring at the screen in awe. What I saw was a bunch of rickshaw walas and coolies, some of them drunk, the others showering Aishwarya Rai with a string of abuses I did not know the meaning of. It felt like a 3D, larger than life experience, the hero was drinking bottles of booze and the area around me stank of it too.

After 2 long hours, Aishwarya realises SRK is outside her gates and runs to meet him. After what seems like a 200 m relay race, she reaches the gates, only for it to be shut on her face. The hero lies dead, mumbling her name. The end credits roll. I stand up.

Only to be pulled back to my seat by my shirt. “Bose, sola. Hero uthibo”. (Sit down, brother in law. The hero will get up). After about 2 minutes, they realised hero wouldn’t get up. This was followed by another string of abuses directed at the hero’s ancestral lineage. The lights got switched on. Someone had thrown something at the screen and people were making a rush for the exit. And a fight broke out. No fight in Orissa is considered big enough till someone screams out ‘Maaaaghiyaaaa’. Someone sounded the war cry and a riot broke out.

I struggled my way out, losing two buttons in the process.

I haven’t forgiven SRK to date.

The Michael Jackson I knew

Throughout my childhood, MJ was a colourful bundle of rumours. Being cut off from the outside world, I used to hear from friends who watched videos of him during holidays. He was supposed to be a very popular singer. A popular book in our library, “Guiness Book of World Records” mentioned him for his records and also his donations to charity. When I first saw him, I thought he was a girl. Rumours were always floating when MJ was involved.

Some said that he was black but got a total skin transplant. Some said that he was a eunuch. He apparently went to sleep in an capsule of Oxygen. Others said that he lived with children, monkeys and other animals. When MJ visited India in 96, there were those (now) laughable rumours of Prabhudeva challenging MJ to a dance duel. They also said that girls fainted upon seeing him.

Then Victory James came along. He was from New Zealand and a devotee of MJ. I remember listening to tales of greatness, sympathy and largesse sitting in the last bench. Victory would hum some of his songs and we would listen. I don’t think he was a great singer, but it sounded like music to our ears. I watched a few videos of his on TV when I went home.

When we went to the senior hostel, we had a little more freedom. While the rest of the school was in the Ashram singing bhajans in praise of different gods, we would sneak out and go to internet cafes outside the ashram. The internet cafes used to charge 60 Rupees an hour. The cafe owner was a smart businessman. We were hard to miss, with our white shirts, white pants, and no chappals! He knew how starved we were of any sort of entertainment. He used to store videos of film songs in Hindi, Telugu and English, which included MJ’s videos. We were allotted cabins in the small cafe and given headphones.

The first video I watched was ‘Black or white’. I remember being blown away by it. I watched it about 5 times. The fact that we were watching the songs while our friends were singing bhajans gave the experience a feeling of sinful indulgence. After watching every video, Victory would give us a brief lecture on the many virtues of MJ. So we would watch with tears in our eyes when he said “All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us”. And with amazement when he implored us to “save the world”. Initially, the idea that we got was that he only sang songs that had some larger altruisitic message. For us, he was a hero. Someone who was fighting a lonely battle for the forgotten and the marginalised. We would learn his songs and hum them in front of our friends, waiting for them to ask what song it was, so that we could say “Michael Jackson” and then narrate the glorious tales that Victory had told us.

After a few years, we got to see reports of other stray incidents. Reports of him being a paedophile, and addicted to painkillers. Victory would have none of it. “All rubbish…. they are just doing it to tarnish his image”, he would say. Gradually, we started sneaking out on our own to watch MJ’s videos. We watched a lot of his earlier songs. They din’t have a social message, but they were pure visual spectacles. Thriller, Bad, Blood on the Dance Floor. We had always seen fat heroes dancing around trees with coquettish heroines. This was something else. We stared open-mouthed as he glided on the stage, did the Moonwalk and whatever else he did in the videos. When there was no one around us, we used to secretly try the ‘moonwalk’. I remember slipping and falling many times in the bathroom.

After we passed out from school in 2002, MJ faded in and out of the headlines for a variety of reasons. There were talks of his huge ranch ‘Neverland’. Tales of his numerous surgeries and makeovers. I still remember the spine chilling image of him dangling his newborn baby from a balcony and thinking that the poor guy has lost it. When he was cleared of paedophile charges, I was a little happy. I could imagine Victory having tears of joy.
A few months back when I heard that he’s making a comeback, I was looking forward to them. His death came as a shock. His death, like his entire life made the headlines. I do not know whether he was a good man or not. I do not know whether I can be called a die hard fan. But the name Michael Jackson brings back memories. Paying 60 rupees, sitting in a ramshackle internet cafe, putting on the headphones and getting transported to another world altogether.

Thank you, Mr. Michael Jackson.