Skip to content

Creating Flow

The Freedom To Be

Tag Archives: School

Tuck!

That was what we called the edible items we got from home to boarding school. I do not know how that word came about. What I do know is that it was a word that made my mouth water as a child.

There were all kinds of tuck.

The Sardars from Punjab got basan ke ladoo, panjiri and dodha. All Indian sweets from the North of India. Made in desi ghee, clarified butter, a symbol of good health in rural (and urban) India. The city dwellers got diary milk chocolates, bourbon biscuits and sometimes cans of rasgullas. However the most treasured tuck was that of the students who came from Thailand. Their tuck was exotic. Perhaps it was not exotic, it was foreign. At a time when India functioned under the License Raj and globalization was unheard of, anything “imported” had an exotic look and smell to it.

The Thai students were mostly Sardars, even though most had Thai names. Monto, Narin,Suvit. They all spoke fluent Thai and I never heard them speak in Punjabi.  It never occurred to me to check how they were both Thai and Sardars. Perhaps their parents had settled in Thailand for business. Or maybe there was another story to their Thai-Sardar ethnicity. Anyway for me, as a nine a year old, it did not matter. I was more interested in the contents of their tuck bags.

In the evenings we used to have tuck time, where in students could open their bags and tuck into their tucks. The most premium tuck belonged to a plump student called Akash Gujral. He was from Kuwait. The quantity of tuck he got could easily fill a small general store for a few months. Huge brown leather suitcases filled with Kraft cheese, orange marmelade, chocolate powder, strawberry candy, Kit Kat bars, Coca Cola cans, choco sticks, nestle ketchup, peanut butter… You name it he had it! It was a treasure trove. Every child dreamed of being of Akash Gujaral when he opened his bag in the evening. If not Akash, atleast his friend. Sometimes Akash was kind enough to share some of his treasure with a few of us and I once saw him pass on a Kraft cheese can to Sister Vimla, one of the nuns in charge of our dormitory. I can still see her beaming smile, stretching from one end of her face to the other. I remember wondering if it was within school (or religious) regulations to gift a can of Kraft cheese to a nun!

But there was something I valued more than cheese. More than all the chocolates and colas put together.

It was Mama!

Mama was a Thai brand of noodles. Very much like Maggi noodles. But it had a different taste and came with two small packets inside the larger packet that contained the hardened block of noodles stuck together. One small packet contained the masala, the taste maker and the other small packet contained the pungent smelling shrimp oil, in which it was to be cooked. More often than not we ate it uncooked. By we I mean my Thai friends who got loads of Mama packets as a part of their tuck. They used to crush the packet without even opening it, so that the long hardened noodles would break into tiny pieces. Once that was accomplished, the packet was opened and the masala sprinkled and the mixture shaken so that the masala would flavour the broken noodles with its spicy, tangy, somewhat sweet and definitely addictive taste.

Sometime I was lucky and got to taste Mama, when a Thai friend happened to extend his open packet towards me. I would dip my small fingers and retrieve a small portion of the mixture. As I put it into my mouth and crunched it with great relish, I was always left wanting for more. Like indulging in foreplay, and not being allowed to proceed further.

I had a childhood fantasy.

It was to have our football field filled with Mama, loads and loads of it and I could eat it to my heart’s content. I have heard, that our unfulfilled desires find manifestation in our dreams. Unfortunately, this fantasy did not find fulfillment even in my dreams.

The closest I came to having Mama was when we used have “party” at night. A few us, boys sleeping in the same dormitory, would get up, some minutes, after light were switched off by the matron. In our night-suits, we would stealthily walk in the darkness to the common washing area that had a number of wash basins lined in a row. Each of us would carry something to eat, ranging from biscuits, chocolates or even a fruit that may have been served to us at dinner time. On few occasions someone would get a few packets of Mama. At such times, we would pour some hot water from the boiler into a plastic mug, dip the Mama into it, sprinkle the masala and stir the mixture. It would take less than 2 minutes for the noodles to cook and be ready to eat. We then greedily scooped the noodles with our fingers and stuffed the steaming curly Mama into our tiny mouths. That was my first experience at cooking. Unfortunately I never proceeded further than that in my culinary skills as an adult, even though I do make it a point to avoid using plastic mugs.

I was wondering though, why would a bunch of nine-year old boys, staying in a boarding school who have just had dinner, want to “party” after everyone has gone to sleep?

It occurred to me boarding life is pretty regimented. There is a time for everything.

A time to wake up, a time to get ready, a time to have breakfast, a time to study, a time to have lunch, a time to resume study, a time to play, a time to stop play, a time to get ready for dinner, a time to have dinner, a time to do your homework and a time to sleep. A life where we had no say over how we would want to spend our time. The establishment decided every aspect of our life. Not that it was cruel. It just robbed me of the faculty of making my own choices and being responsible for them. Years later when I had quit the corporate world and started working on my own, I used to feel lost at times how to manage my time, if I did not have someone telling me what to do or checking on what I have done.

I now realize eating Mama after lights were switched off, was my first small step of rebellion against the establishment that ruled my life.

Those tiny fingers holding steaming noodles were trying hard to wrench back the control that adults had established over my life. It was an effort to reclaim what rightfully belonged to me. In the best manner I could. By boiling Mama in a plastic mug and eating it, when I was clearly not supposed to be doing it. In those moments, Mama symbolized my first struggle for freedom.

I do not know what the other boys, who “partied” after lights out are doing in their lives at the moment. I only hope that we have not entirely lost some of the fighting spirit we demonstrated as children. That our taste for freedom has not been totally extinguished by our struggles to find ourselves as adults.

Recently a school friend who was visiting Mumbai from Thailand, happened to ask me what could he get for me. Without a moment’s hesitation I said “Mama!”. So he got me a carton of Mama with fifty packets in the carton. I have had more than half of them, by crushing the packets and adding the taste maker. Even though I still have more than a few packets of Mama left, my craving for it has dissipated considerably. I guess fantasies have a greater power when they remain unfulfilled.

Or perhaps Mama had already fulfilled its role in my life, the first time I boiled it in a plastic mug after lights out.

My first…tentative…tiny…taste of freedom!

***

What do you recollect of your first taste of freedom?

     Related articles

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The blank canvas. Looking for black and white ink. Squiggles, curls and dots. Squiggles? What is a squiggle? I look up the synonyms. Scribble, wavy line, scrawl, doodle, mark. Hmm…can one squiggle or doodle with a key board? The fingers press on the keys leaving an imprint on the monitor. When was the last time I wrote? I mean really write. With a paper and a pen. Writing a cheque does not count. That does not count for self-expression. I give up reflecting. I have been punching keys on the keyboard for a very long time.

Why this sudden, inquiry into expression through pen and paper.

I remember the time when I was first given a pen to write with. A fountain pen. I was excited. It was a fountain pen and one had to fill ink in it by pulling the small knob attached at the end of the plastic tube. The ink flowed into the tube using the suction principle. Not that the ink knew about this principle. It was something that we were taught in science class. There was an ink bottle kept on the table in the corner of the classroom. After we had finished filling our fountain pens with ink, we used to wipe the nibs on the side of our heads. I do not know who started it, but it became a kind of ritual and all of us did it. As though we needed to wipe the nibs, clean after their morning bath in ink and the extra ink would soak into our scalp and make us more intelligent.

Ms Panero was our class teacher. An unmarried woman in her sixties. She had a sharp nose and round rimmed glasses perched on that nose. We had heard she was from Calcutta, not Kolkatta, and she was the senior most teacher in the school. As I try to reach back into the memory section of my head to recall the events of that day, I cannot recall them. Infact, I cannot recall the other days of school either. What exactly did I do? Is it because I was too young? I do recall myself playing, particularly marbles in the mud until my fingers ached from bending them backward. I recall the time when I made a paper airplane and it flew far higher and far longer than other planes. I recall being part of gymnastics and the smell of the musty mattresses when we landed on them. The memories are there, thank god. Only the portion of time I spent in classrooms seems to have become blank. Or maybe one large undistinguishable mass of blankness. Remarkable.

Anyway coming back to the business of fountain pens and Ms Panero. Both symbols of my growing up. The fountain pen meant that I was old enough to use ink. It meant my written expression would be more vivid and clear. There was also an unstated expectation that what I write would not be cancelled or rubbed. And I could be trusted with that. In recognition of that trust, I was handed the fountain pen. As though I was being knighted for coming of age, under the strict supervision of Ms. Panero. She told us how the fountain pen was to be used. In case of any errors, which were not expected of us, we were to cancel the word in a clean systematic manner. One stroke for one alphabet. We were also told that the stroke had to be a backslash, not a horizontal line, not a forward slash, but a backslash. It was cumbersome to cancel each alphabet one stroke at a time, yet that is how we were told. That is how I did it.

We did not get a chance to see each other’s books, or our collective artistry with the fountain pen. I felt my writing was fairly clean and synthetic to go under the gaze of Ms. Panero. When the English class was over, that is what she taught us, a shrill bell rang signalling the end of this class and the start of another. We quickly closed our books and screwed back the cover of our pens. Oh! And I forgot to mention each of our pens had our names on it. A small white strip of paper with a transparent scotch tape pasted over it. I got up and put my book on the table along with my cherished first fountain pen. So did everyone else. Ms Panero collected the books in one big pile and put all the fountain pens back in the bag that she had got them in. The books were for correction. And the fountain pens were for her safe custody. Even though the pens were symbols of our coming adulthood, we were not considered adult enough yet to take care of them. As she left the class with our books and pens, we got ready for the next teacher to teach us another subject. It is remarkable that I cannot recall what I was taught, that day.

The next day Ms. Panero handed our books to us. I eagerly opened to see what remarks I had got for what I had written the previous day. I was aghast. The page was bathed in red. It was a battle of her red ink over my blue ink. There were red backslashes everywhere.  / / / / /  These lines. An army of them. Overpowering the army of my words.  I wondered what is it that I had done wrong. The spellings were in order, the words touched the line evenly and I had cancelled the misspelt words in exactly the way I was told to. I turned another page and there at the end of it was written in the unmistakable scrawl of Ms. Panero’s writing “Write towards the right.”

Write towards the right. Write towards the right. Write towards the right.

I pondered on that sentence over and over again. Trying to decipher the deep mystery behind those words. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not understand what “Write towards the right” meant. It would have been easier to go up to her and simply ask what she meant, but then for me it was like crossing the Pacific Ocean. I don’t know why I say the Pacific ocean and not the Atlantic, or the Indian,  maybe in my mind back then the Pacific was the most difficult to cross. Never mind. The point was asking Ms. Panero what she meant by the red remark in my book was taking a huge risk for my eleven year old self. What if she showed my book to the entire class and everyone saw the sea of red plastered on my pages. What if she made a statement that would allow my classmates to make fun of me for rest of the day, rest of the term, maybe rest of my life? I just could not allow that to happen. So I did what any self-respecting eleven year old would do. I sat quiet and acted as though nothing had happened.

As I handed my book to Ms. Panero that day, I was dreading what would come my way tomorrow. I was hoping that I had written the way she wanted me to. Made extra sure that all my T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted. But deep down something in me knew that this was not the end of it.

The next day Ms. Panero returned everyone’s book for writing their lesson. Except mine. She held onto my book. I panicked. Just imagine your classmates with their books and writing the lesson for the day and here I was the only one who was without a book. There is nothing worse for an eleven year old than exclusion. To not be doing something, that everyone in the class was doing. Being part of the group was like oxygen. Vital force of remaining alive. Even if the group was being given painful injections, I rather be a part of that group and undergo the same painful experience, rather than be left out without an experience my friends underwent. I sat in misery awaiting my fate.

While the others were busy with their writing, Ms Panero called me to the table. I approached the table in front. I could smell her. It was distinct smell of…of…of…. errr… pencil eraser. The kind which has floral fragrance and looks good, but when you use it leaves a black smudgy mark on paper. Maybe it was my imagination. “Yes Miss.” I said as soon as I was standing within hearing distance of her. “I told you to write towards right. Why are you not doing that?” she asked with a genuine concern just as a doctor would address a patient, who is not following the simplest instructions for his own betterment. I looked at her, not knowing what to say. Finally, I said “I am sorry Miss. I don’t understand. What is right towards right?” She was taken a back for a moment. Probably in her own head, she wondered how could anyone not understand “Write towards right.” The simplest instruction in the world.

She opened my book and showed my writing to me. “See here. All your written alphabets are slanting towards the left. I want you to write all your alphabets slanting towards the right, so that eventually your alphabets will become straight and centred. Do you understand now? ” She asked. “Oh! So that is what write towards right meant” I said in my own mind. “Yes Miss.” I said to her excited at having finally deciphered the mystery of right towards right. “I understand now.” She nodded her head in approval and gave me my book. I quickly returned to my seat before anyone noticed something was wrong.

So, I started writing towards right.

***

If my blog theme supported writing in italics, you would be seeing the balance of this article in italics font. Unlike Ms Panero, it does not. Anything written in italics is transformed into capital letters. So I am colouring the rest of it in blue. But you could tilt your head a little towards the right and imagine it is slanting to the right. If you please.

***

Until this day, I write towards right. I slant my writing towards the right. Ms. Panero forgot to correct me that I had written enough towards the right and it was time to centre my writing. Neither did I bother to remind her. Ms. Panero was my class teacher only for that class. The next year I moved to another school and another class where the teacher never bothered about how I wrote, much less what I wrote. So then, there was no reason to centre my writing.

Years later, someone was analysing my writing. He said, “You are ambitious and forward-looking, as all your alphabets are slanting towards the right.” I smiled. It felt good to hear that. Maybe I was. But now you know that is not the only reason why I right towards right.          

 “Write towards right!” I can still hear Ms. Panero saying to me in red.

***

Tags: , , , , , , ,