Back to school

The “Back to school!” tagline has been omnipresent for several weeks.  Parents or students do not need to be reminded, although this does present another opportunity for retailers to push their products and hype up peer pressure until the flocks succumb.

We have come a long way since my own school days when laptops, notepads and cell phones had not yet made their mark.  Going back further in time, I recall anecdotes that my father shared about his school days.  He attended school in their village in Shekhupura district (then in undivided Punjab, now Pakistan).  Classes were invariably held in the open, under a large tree.  Students would typically carry a “slate” and “takhti” to school, there being no notebooks in village schools those days (1930s).  The former is a piece of slate, encased in a wooden frame.  A “takhti” is a 9X18 inches plank, around a quarter of an inch thick, shaped from the very hard “shisham” (Indian Rosewood).  Both implements are still in use in some South Asian village schools today.

Usually all arithmetic was done on the slate, writing with a piece of chalk.  It was cleaned for repeated use by spitting on the surface and rubbing vigorously with the bare palm, an elbow sleeve or the front of the shirt!  While restricted, those girls that attended classes, would wet the edge of their “chunni” or “dupatta” (literally, “two-edged” scarf, traditionally used as a symbol of modesty but now also serving as a decorative accessory) to clean their slate.  Teachers encouraged “neat” handwriting and calligraphy.  Pens (“qalams”) were shaped from reeds, with the tip or nib being carefully whittled down to a narrowness to suit the script.  The “dawaat” (an inkwell, usually a cylindrical container made of brass, ceramic, bronze or glass) would contain the ink made from carbon black or the soot from oil lamps used to light up homes at night.  After writing on one side of the takhti, the student would flip to the other side.  The takhti would be plastered with a yellow paste of water and “Gaachni mitti” (or “Multani mitti”, Fullers Clay) which, upon drying, created a smooth writing surface.

Teaching was by rote.  For instance, when teaching arithmetic, the master (usually a male teacher) would intone “Do ekum do, do dooni chaar” (Two times one is two, two times two is four) and so on and the students would repeat this after him.  In due course, the smartest lad showing promise (or the village headman’s son) would be handpicked to lead the class in this ritual while the master dozed.  Periodically, he would open an eye to call up a student seen to be dawdling or doing mischief and dish out suitable punishment.  The boy would be asked to become a “murgha” (cock) by doubling over, bringing the arms from under the knees and clasping his ears!  This was the easy option out for the errant pupil, as more severe corporeal punishment was usually the norm.

It was traditional for students when joining school, or moving to another class/grade, to carry a brass pitcher of fresh “kheer” (rice pudding) or another suitable gift for the master.  The close-knit village community enabled a familial environment and it was not out of place for the master to question a student if his family’s newly acquired buffalo was providing an adequate amount of milk, as no one had considered it fit to provide him a sample for tasting!

I cannot recall my own start-of-school days, but do remember my grandmother insisting that fresh curds (yogurt) sweetened with honey be served in a small silver bowl at the start of each school term.  She personally ensured that my brother and I swallowed a few spoons of this “auspicious” stuff before leaving home.  While I did not fancy this concoction at the time, yogurt and honey is a favorite snack (one of many) that I now enjoy!

Our five years old granddaughter spent the weekend at our place before returning to school this week.  When it was time to go home to her parents, I handed over a few coins for depositing in her piggy bank.  But she came up and said softly to me, “Nana, I broke open my piggy bank and have $57.  My sister does not have any, so can you please give the money to her?”

Students can be the best teachers.

“Yahaan ik madrassaa hotaa thaa pehle, magar ab kaar-khanaa chal raha hai”

[Earlier there used to be a school here, but now an affair/enterprise runs here] – Rahat Indori

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