Learning & Unlearning

Rohini Kejriwal (ISC 2009) is an accomplished journalistblogger, and generally amazing person. This piece is taken with permission from Down The Road, an “exciting and eclectic collection of short stories that brings out all those memories – unforgettable, warm, thrilling, and at times embarrassing – of life in school and college campuses,” edited by Rohini and Ahmed Faiyaz, and published by Grey Oak Publishers. 

***

“Be quiet or Akka’ll come and catch us,” said Alisha, peeping out of the Box Room door and checking if our Houseparent’s light came on. Her light being on meant that our noise levels had risen beyond the permissible point and that she had been woken up from her beauty sleep and would now come to the source of the noise to scold the ruckus makers. Tonight was not one of those nights when it was only the noise that we could get into trouble for. A Maggi party was in session.

Making Maggi in a boarding school is an illegal but sacred act. You must know exactly what you are doing—who is going to cook it, who is heating the water, who is cleaning after the act of consumption takes place, and who keeps the deodorant at hand, the precautionary measure to get rid of the smell in case the houseparent comes to do her rounds. There are big bowls in which evening snack is given. Someone clears out the contents of one such bowl, washes it, and hands it to the cook. The cook crushes the ‘n’ number of cakes of noodles (‘n’ being a variable for the number of people present), and pours the proportionate amount of hot water which is brought from the solar water tap. The bowl is covered with another plate and left to semi-cook.

After ten minutes or so, the water is drained out, burning the hands of the one draining it, the masala is sprinkled over the prepared noodles, and after the cook mixes it with her hands, everyone digs in! The consumption is almost always done with the hands since spoons have to be flicked from the Dining Hall (DH) otherwise. The person who washes it usually gets to lick the bowl clean of its masala before washing. Quite a treat, I assure you! In the end, the deodorant is sprayed and the fan is left on and everyone returns to their rooms as though they were in no way associated with any illegal incidences that day. Sadly, too many people got caught keeping illegal foods and no one practises such nights anymore.

This Maggi Party was unlike others in the past. It was the last one as school students. A few hours back had been our Farewell Night. The Farewell Night, as always, was during the middle of the Board exams for some and almost towards the end for some of the Science students. It was on a Saturday so that no one was worried about an examination the next day. The girls were in beautiful sarees in varying hues of blues, greens, oranges…The boys were either wearing tucked in shirts or kurtas. In a few days, the 12thies would have to vacate the classroom we had gotten so fond of and head out into different parts of the world, pursuing our different dreams. Some knew which direction they were heading. Others could only hope that they would stumble upon their paths soon.

Goodbyes were said by the teachers and Houseparents first. Then, the stage was open for students to give their Farewell speeches. This is a Farewell for the 10thies because some of them leave for other schools for their +2, while others are not called back. For the 12thies, it is a definite parting, a parting that I personally did not make too willingly. I had my speech in my hand. Usually, I would write down my thoughts and feelings on an occasion such as this. This time, I found what I had to say in the words of another. I read out something from Jon Krakeur’s Into The Wild, which aptly described my state of mind at the time:

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times. There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning, think what may be the end.

Soon, the speeches ended and some people broke down and the tedious process of consoling ‘senti’ batchmates began. It dawned on everyone that this was it. There had been Farewell Evenings in the past few years where we had been the listeners to the speeches. But tonight, we were the ones saying our Goodbyes to our fellow batchmates, juniors, teachers, and even to the wonderful principal who would call me a hyper little ‘squirrel’ and accuse me of not bathing when my hair was messy.
I rushed out of the hall as the nostalgia started to hurt. I found myself walking back to the hostel hastily, almost tripping on the 2 inch heels that I had been practising walking in for the last two weeks. The tears were not going to be on public display tonight. I went to the backyard to wash my face and almost jumped when I saw her sitting alone in a corner, crying. She had been the only girl I had been afraid of in my class. She was always in baggy jeans and loose shirts that ought to be worn by boys, had the most intimidating glare, and was weirdly allergic to fruits. She was a senile creature according to most, and was possibly the only person in school to not even have a friend who she could call her own.

Down the Road, Paperback, Grey Oak Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
ISBN 8192040305

She looked extremely weak suddenly; she sat crouched up against the wall in a black saree, allowing tears to flow out of those perpetually angry eyes. I was witnessing her in her moment of weakness. I walked up to her, not thinking of what I was doing, and opened my arms to her, internally scared that she would take them and twist them or something. She leaned in for the hug, much to my surprise. “Don’t mention this to anybody or it won’t be good for you”, she whispered, letting go almost as soon as she let our bodies meet.

“I won’t. Do you want to talk?” I asked, trying to help her break the facade she had created for herself and let me in. “Have you ever climbed the terrace at night?” she asked, taking me by surprise, and on seeing me shake my head, she grabbed my hand forcefully and led me to the washing area from where we’d climb the terrace on Saturdays and eat tamarinds. Before I knew it, two strangers in sarees were lying on a terrace that revealed the wonders of the night sky. To kill the awkwardness that was arising in my mind, I kept a look out for a shooting star.
She was the one who broke the silence. She told me that she was afraid of leaving this place, of losing the sense of familiarity she got on seeing the faces of her ‘dorky classmates’, of being sucked into the apparently big bad world where crimes were rampant. She confessed that she wanted to break out of her shell and let people know her as the person that she was but was too scared to actually let that happen. Her uncle beat her up and molested her almost every day as a child, and though her parents knew about it, they never acted upon it. The uncle brought home the bread, and her parents were indebted to him for his ‘kindness’. She yearned for a mother’s love and a father’s words of wisdom. She wanted to feel. But she couldn’t. She wanted to speak up. But she couldn’t.

I remember crying with her that night. I remember feeling a chill run down my spine despite the heat of the night in March. I remember her face going pale as she told me. I remember how hard it was for her to speak. I remember the silences in the middle of sentences, followed by a stream of tears and barely audible sobs. I remember the hug we shared after she had told me what she had wanted to. She felt unburdened and her lips gave away her sense of relief.

I half wished that this was some surreal dream I had been having. But there was no waking up needed. The only thing I woke up to was her reality. A reality, I realized, that she had to deal with completely alone in her other life. They say that a child in a boarding school leads two lives—one as a student/sibling/child in the boarding school with his batchmates, roommates, and Houseparents; the other back home as a member of his/her blood family. In her eyes, she had no family in either lives, but this was her ‘home’. More than the people, the place had given her solace and something to relate to, to keep her grounded. While I was afraid of losing touch with the people I had gotten to know in my four years there, she was afraid of sinking into a deep dark hole in unfamiliar territory. The people did not matter to her and faces had been kept as a blur for too long a time. For her, the hills, the lone walks to the gate, the trees under which she sat and read Tolstoy, and the well in the Veg Garden would be left behind. A different farewell would be said, a different set of memories would be taken.

She finished what she had to say and got up. “Goodbye… and thank you,” she said, walking away, with her back to me. I knew that she would not bring herself to look me in the eye after this. She would not say Goodbye before she left. She had let someone in too close and despite the momentary relief she got from doing so, this revelation of her inner self would bother her. I looked up at the star-strewn sky. I would feign indifference to her in our last few days here. She would prefer it to be that way. But what I would do secretly would be to leave a letter in her suitcase, telling her that she had ‘someone’ if she ever needed a hug or a shoulder, and if she wanted to get in touch with that ‘someone’, how and where she could do so. It is no surprise that the ‘someone’ has still not heard from her.

There are some things that one knows for a fact; there are others that are assumed to be facts but must be unlearned in order to truly learn them.

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