I sometimes wake up thinking that I have to go to school again, and it fills me with dread before I realise that I never have to go to school again; I never have to walk to that cold building with its dark long corridors and barred windows; I never have to park my bottom again on those hard benches and rest my elbows on the wooden desks while my attention wandered; I never have to see St. Joseph’s ever again. Ever.
I detested school, and it wasn’t for the many reasons that children and teenagers tend to dislike school. I hated it simply because it was puzzling and punishing; I found its lack of inspiration singular, and I was always going to be much too different to ‘fit in’.
We use the words ‘fit in’ as though we’re talking about a visit to a dressing room; as though the phase in which we don’t ‘fit in’ is fleeting and instantaneous, and yet, it’s not. It’s singularly one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in my life; to not ‘fit in’ is worse than dressing room melodrama. It’s dreadful.
And when the people who add to your discomfort and disillusionment and segregation are not your fellow students, but the teachers, adults who should have supposedly known better, there is only one guarantee: you are skewered and incomplete and inconsequential and don’t deserve anything.
I’m speaking, of course, in particular, of one teacher here, although there were two others. But those two came later; for now I only want to focus on the librarian. There was a smallish library in St. Joseph’s Matriculation School in Coimbatore, and we had a library period every week. We were encouraged to borrow books and we usually spent the library period reading in the library (alas, it was never anything very age appropriate).
The librarian was a tall woman with a large bosom that earned her the nickname of ‘Double Bra’; she had a habit of sticking her chest right out in front of her as she walked so that, as it were, it was always the first thing on the scene. It entered rooms long before she did, and the older girls gave her the nickname of ‘Double Bra’. It stuck, and we called her that in private, and giggled to ourselves.
This woman had known my mother when she studied in the same school; she liked to think of herself as an institution, probably. I don’t know. What I do know is that she considered that I was very unlike my mother in every possible way, and from the time I was old enough to go to library period every week, she would take great pains to point it out.
‘You’re so <insert something here>, so unlike your mother!’
I got used to hearing it, and it became a background song to my life in school. I knew I wasn’t like my mother; I knew I didn’t look like her (our extended family had been dinning that into my head all my life); I knew I wasn’t her. I didn’t quite know enough to say it at the time, as I was only 11 years old, but in one of my diaries (I kept detailed diaries of every year of my life; some of them are hilarious to me now, but some are painful, and I can’t bear to read more than a few lines of those entries) I had written these words: Double Bra said I wasn’t mummy again. How can I be mummy when mummy’s mummy? I’m Awanthi, not mummy.
And so we continued, almost until the end of that year, when my mother visited the school for something. She paid Double Bra a visit, while I excused myself and headed to the canteen, which was situated on the other side of the school grounds. I got a little pocket money to spend on sweets every week and I hadn’t spent my money yet that week; they sold some lurid pink sweets that had a chewy texture in the canteen, and I was a huge fan. Nevertheless, I headed there, bought the sweets, and then walked back to the school with a sweet in my mouth, while holding a small paper bag clutching the rest of my precious purchase. I went to the library, where I found my mother talking to Double Bra.
They noticed that I was sucking on something, and I said I’d been to the canteen. Now, I don’t know how it happened, but Double Bra began asking me where I got the money for the sweets. I told her that it was my pocket money that I hadn’t spent. It was quite the middle of the week by then, and my mum knew I had a weakness for spending my pocket money as quickly as I could, and so she just said the following words: That’s surprising that your pocket money lasted that long!
Double Bra began badgering me, gently at first, and then persistently, to tell the truth about where I got the money from.
I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable; I was a child and here was an adult, a teacher, asking me over and over again to confess about my own pocket money. My mother chimed in with a surprised note as well, questioning me. I just wanted it to be over.
And then Double Bra said: You took it from the poor box, didn’t you?
The poor box was a tin that every classroom had in the class cupboards; every day one of the girls (possibly the assistant class leader or a group captain) would take the tin around and shake it under everyone’s noses. Some of the girls would cough up some money every day; a measly rupee, perhaps, or a half-rupee. It was then put inside the class cupboards again and locked up, but everyone had access to the keys.
I was shocked. I hadn’t stolen it and I would never steal it; I kept insisting, over and over, that it was my pocket money that I had spent. Double Bra kept pressuring me to confess that I stole it from the poor box. My mother, who used to be incredibly suggestible at the time, and not really the sort of mother who would stick up for her children at any costs (not then, at any rate; I have to be fair to my mum), also joined in and urged me to confess.
I was only eleven. I confessed to a crime I hadn’t committed.
Double Bra then wrathfully pulled out a large folder and thrust it at my mum; she showed us the various Christian projects (the school, as you have guessed by the name, was a fiercely Christian school that thrust the religion down the throats of every single child who attended the school; I can still reel off the Lord’s Prayer because I learned it, by rote, and said it aloud at the end of every assembly during the ten years I studied there) that were being undertaken with the money from the poor box. I was told that I should feel ashamed and that I had sinned; my mother just kept asking me over and over again how I could do such a thing.
I just wanted to get away from there; get away from that hateful library and that horrible woman, and go home.
The next day my mum gave me about fifty rupees, if I remember, and told me to put it in the poor box. I was surprised; I had only spent about five rupees on the sweets; my pocket money at the time was twenty rupees a week. I told my mother so, but she cut me short. She said I’d stolen (I indignantly protested here that I had not, but she trotted out my confession and I shut up) and that I had to ‘make things right’.
With bitterness in my heart I put the fifty rupees into the poor box that day, and while everyone in the class applauded me for giving so much to the poor, I could only think of Double Bra, and how she made me confess to something I’d never done. I saw her later, and gave her my best glare; I can still see her now as she was that evening, sitting in that chair, with her smug, self-satisfied face and her enormous bosom; I can still hear her oily voice saying, ‘You took it from the poor box, didn’t you?’
No. I didn’t. I didn’t take it, Double Bra, and you should never have been in charge of a library; you should never have had the opportunity to interact with young people and young minds. You are one of the worst people I have ever had the misfortune to know, and you do not deserve, in my books, the title of ‘Teacher’.