I was in a navy blue pinafore and a white shirt, a short crop of hair combed and held back by black hair-pins, a small bag slung over my shoulder – on my first day in school. When a neighbourhood ‘kaka‘ asked me the name of my school in the evening, I still remember taking a deep breath before starting – ‘Kripasharan Continental Institution’- a mouthful for me even today. I was just a shade over three years old when my parents felt that my time would be far better spent amongst children of my age rather than a houseful of adults. So that fine day, I trooped off to school – with my tiny hand firmly clenching my mother’s thumb as she strode through the crowded lanes and by-lanes of central Calcutta, past the busy Bowbazar Post Office, a quick turn into an alley beyond the Phiringi Kalibari, past the thick moustached constable stationed at the gates of the Bowbazar Police Station and through the gates of my first school.
Kripasharan wasn’t a playschool or kindergarten in the conventional sense of the term; it was a school that had been set up and run by a group of Buddhist monks who believed children would be far better off imbibing the lessons of the 8-fold path early on in life. And while I don’t very clearly remember what I was taught there, I do remember lots of serene, smiling faces in flame coloured robes, the booming voice of Mahantaji chanting the morning prayers and the sound of carefree laughter and high-pitched voices as we, the children who studied at Kripasharan, played, coloured, laughed and danced to our hearts content every day at school.
A couple of years later when I was made to switch my allegiance from the Buddhist Brotherhood to the Missionary Sisterhood of Loreto, I remember spending most of my days in school in carefree frolic. There was a definite thrill in going to school each day, opening a book and turning a fresh leaf that held with it images and experiences of places, times, things and a world I did not know. Teachers in all shapes and sizes filled up our days with coaxing, cajoling, strictures and detentions too! Till when I was nearing my board exams, I remember the heaviest part of my school going ensemble was my lunch-box, which my mother would assiduously pack every morning with piping hot food, that would remain a mystery till the mid morning break.
Life was possibly easy then. We had friends, books, paints, squabbling siblings, playgrounds, alleys, the terrace and the sky. We didn’t have Barbie, Hannah Montana or the Jonas Brothers to contend with as we grew up along with our friends. (We didn’t even have Camp Rock or High School Musical, though we also had our own heart throbs in Knight Rider, Remington Steele and Jesse of Street Hawk fame). What we also didn’t have is the huge mountain of books that children of today have to lug all the way to school irrespective of their age, aptitude or the list of subjects on the timetable each and every day of the year. And while I can’t say that things continued this way all the way through school, college and University for me, the fact is that I spent the most beautiful years of my childhood enjoying my childhood both at home and at school.
The children of today are a lot smarter, significantly more aware, and considerably more tech savvy than we were at their ages . A generation of plenty has provided them with access to information, knowledge and learning that we had never dreamed of. What it is also provided them with is a bulging bag of books that is perhaps much better consigned to the weight trainers at the gym than to the overflowing classrooms of today.
As I thread through the cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and people every morning, my 9-going-on-10 chattering by my side, her bag thrown over my shoulder, I can’t help but notice little children bent over double almost as they lug their burden to school. The smiles that I remember, the carefree laughter, the splashing in the pool and the childhood pranks seem to have paled and faded somewhat into the background as has their childhood.The days once filled with games, friends, cousins, picnics and outings are now filled by tuition classes of every conceivable nature and hue; homework by the sack full; and finishing classes that were last known to benefit the likes of Gigi and other eligible debutantes.
Harried mothers and distracted fathers hurry back from their chores to attend Parent-Teacher meetings in the hope of discovering that single flash of brilliance that will put a league between their children and the mass. And teachers, eager to bask in the glory of their successes, focus all their energies and lavish all their praise on the same set of students who, they believe, will bring laurels to their roost. What do we really hope to achieve through this mindless pursuit of success?A generation of androids who have been forced to sacrifice their childhoods at the altar of adult success? A race of self serving superhuman children who even Darwin would be proud of? Or a breed of mature young adults to whom we can bequeath the legacy of the planet? I don’t know about you, but I definitely want the last.
So here’s what a ‘not-so-ideal’ mother, I, did last year. When the nine came home with her second term Hindi marks, a proud nine out of twenty five, which was one whole mark more than her first term marks (an eight out of twenty five) – I took her to Crossword and asked her to pick up her favourite book – a gift to celebrate the ‘single fruit’ of her hard work in Hindi!
Read it on my TOI blog : Freeze Frame