Or the ninth time....
One evening way back in the 80s, I was playing with half a dozen friends in my grandfather's place in Madras. I was abruptly pulled out of an argument surrounding a run-out and put on a bogey in Nellai express and sent on my way to a place called Palayamkottai. Little did I know that I was heading towards two of the most exciting years of my life. All I knew was - It was to be my fifth new school and 4th new place in 5 years. This had become a typical ritual for me in June. I wouldn't be enrolled in any school until mid-June given that my father could be transferred to anytown, India. The transfer order (which was based on the weather patterns, planet-alignment, changes to the Sweedish Government) would come mid-june. Schools and houses would be quickly found and I would be evacuated from my grandparents place to yet another adventure in an unknown place. I completely detested going out of Madras. Every June my dad threatened me with new places and I would respond with a "yuck" or a "Ywack". One year, he'd say "Bombay" and I went "yuck". Next year He'd say "Gwahati" and I'd say "ywack". Quite frankly, I didn't know how to respond to a 'Palayamkottai'. I mean - what the hell was that? I had never heard of this place before. A few people who knew the place scratched their head and said - "It has a jail". But what good is a jail for a seventh grader?
So, one monday morning in June, I woke up to find myself in Palayamkottai, Thirunelveli. My house had a few opened and many unopened crates strewn around and my dad was instructing the men who were arranging stuff. I was nervously dressed up for school. My mom always insisted on a 'kungumam' kind of smear on my forehead before I left to school, which my brother and I wiped out 3 milliseconds after we entered the school gate. Not cool enough. We hadn't scoped out the school yet. [The previous year I forgot to wipe it, walked into a Christian school and was made the butt of all jokes for a month]. A few note books were thrown into my bag and there was obviously a pencil box making the "dodak dodak" sound as I walked. The lunch bag had a water bottle, a tiffin carrier and a towel ( also called a 'napkin' :-) ) wedged between the two. A spoon was loosely dropped in the lunch bag. The carrier had three small containers. The middle one housed the vegetables, the bottom one had sambhar/rasam rice and the top most one invariably had curd rice with pickle stains on it. Sometimes the curd would leak in to bag along with some rasam and the spoon, unable to bear the stench, would jump out and commit suicide.
Sidetrack: Remember the obnoxious kids who wore their school bags with the rope handle of the bag wrapped on their forehead. Do you get the picture? I mean the single long rope/cloth like handle, of the bag that is supposed to go over your shoulders. Some village/corporation school students hung the bag behind them with this piece of cloth going across their foreheads. I wanted to slay them just for that act.
The first Monday, I walked in - It had been 3 weeks since school re-opened. And that was typically the case with me. I had never attended school on opening day because at that point in time, I wouldn't even be aware such a school existed. The assembly had commmenced. My parents obviously had no clue about school timings, they just dropped me at a time they guessed would be the regular start time (and they were 10 minutes off the mark). I accosted strangers and asked them " 7 A" - shouted - " SEVEN A" . The students had already formed the class line that would lead them to the school grounds for the assembly. Some pointed their eye up the stairs and some just vaguely waved their hands towards a corner. I was painfully aware that entire lines of students had started to look at me curiously. "new student".... "is he out of town" they were whispering among themselves. Amazing is the pressure that comes from carrying a bag + hand bag in a stange building with 100 eyes breathing down your neck. I felt like I was paraded naked in front of a crowd. The lines began to move to the assembly (held in the school ground) and I hadn't found my class yet.
My desparate eyes finally hit an ugly board that said '7A'. I rushed in, expecting the class to be empty - since the assembly had begun - and a thought struck me "I have no place. No Bench assigned Where do I keep my bags?". I ran in and barged into a guy who had his left hand covered in POP and bandage. He was the only one in class. We looked at each other for a moment. A moment I'll never forget for the rest of my life. He was huge for a 7th grader, like a thug. He asked "new student?" I nodded in nervousness. I quickly realized he had been excempted from assembly because of the hand fracture. He quickly realized I needed a bench/place, showed me one in the last bench and said "Keep your bags here. This place is empty". Then he went out of the class and gestured with his face asking me to come to the corridor outside - like a Mossad agent calling a CIA agent on a stake out. "That line" he pointed from above (we were in the first floor) towards students standing in line for the assembly "is 7A". "Run. you are already late," he said. I saw the line hazily, ran down the stairs and went and joined the wrong 7B line.
In the next 30 minutes, I went through several surprises. The Sanskrit prayer "Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu" that I said in a aba-swaramic way that day was the first non-english prayer I had said in all my school life. My past school assembly prayers were an random assortment of Christian choirs (by virtue of the schools I studied). The prayer later changed to "thaayin mani kodi pareer" and by the time I got over the cultural shock of being part of Tamizh prayer they threw a "neeradum kadlodukka niramadantha" at me. Despite being Tamizh and having studied before in many schools in the same state, this seemed like a new world with strange things happening. I was thankful when the "Jana Gana Mana" eventually arrived at the end of the assembly session. At least I knew something.
Back in class: The school teacher stopped during the attendance roll call when my name came up (perhaps struggling to pronounce a name them did not end with 'an'). Looked up from the attendance book towards me and asked "Tamizh'a?".The whole class looked at me, I stood up and said "yes". He then ruthlessly suffixed a 'an' to my name and moved on. The first interval break, students began to congregate around me. Most guys had 2 litres of oil on their heads, 0.5 litres on their foreheads and a bright shining viboothi, which if Robinson Crusoe had worn on his forehead when he was marooned, he would have been visible to ships sailing near Japan. I thought of my mom and felt guilty. I wanted to go home.
They made me write a sample paragraph in English to check out my handwriting. They asked everything from my previous year's report card to my caste. The two main negatives was (a) I was from Madras - a bad thing down south and (b) could speak English -if i get classified as a 'peter' my social life was over. My Madras tamil was letting me down in my attempts to fit in. They even started joking about it. I began to feel I didn't even know the language anymore. At lunch they interviewed me on my cricket abilities for positions ranging from class team to colony team. Seasoned by past experiences, I underplayed where I had to and lied wherever else I could. Thankfully the guy I met in the morning was kind of shielding me from intense interrogation. He seemed to be the TopCat around the place[ RunLolaRun SideNote: It is strange how the people you meet so randomly become bum pals. Ozdude, the guy with the fractured hand, become one of my closest friends, we moved to chennai together, changed schools again together, later went to the same college and are still bum pals. End RunLolaRUn Side Note ] History class: The teacher asked me a question and I stood up (you have to stand up when you address a teacher) and said "No Ma'm". The whole class went to a hush. Side Track: A decision on calling lady teachers M'a'm' and 'Miss' was one of the most difficult decisions to make. It totally depended on school habits. However, in the instant case I did not expect these students to undertstand my 'Ma'm' as 'man'. End Sidetrack. End of day: I was hoping the nighmare would end when the Math teacher Mr.Rajagopalan walked in. Within seconds he asked "where is the new student". I stood up and he said "your father was on the phone with me today afternoon - it seems you are good in Mathematics and weak in Biology. Lets see how good you are?". .....