I was a student of St Joseph’s Secondary School at Trivandrum for six years from 1964 to 1970, completing Classes V to X. How time flies, but how the memories remain !
We were a bunch of about 30 young teens in our class, all boys, with the sap of life rising within our slim bodies. Classes began at 9.30 in the morning and continued until 3.30 in the evening, but for an hour’s noon interval for lunch. We wore white shirts and khaki shorts. In Kerala those days, there was no political statement apparent in our attire, though now the colour of the shorts and the shirt may have raised objections. Within a year after we left school, it was changed to black shorts!
Our footwear was left to our imagination: thin hawai chappals to leather sandals to tennis shoes to clunky black Bata clogs. School bags varied too: from heavy indestructible steel trunks which last forever to leather valises to canvas and cloth bags slung over the shoulder. We studied diligently and were mostly in awe of our teachers.
The school management was with the Jesuits: white-robed priests who would not hesitate to tie their gowns around their waists and join in a vigorous game of football with the senior boys after school hours; who would not hesitate to whip you to within an inch of your life with their thin bamboo canes should you dare violate any of the minute rules and regulations of the school, who would care for you like a mother, should you fall sick, whose faces still linger in your mind, more than half a century later.
Father Murickan was our class teacher in Xth standard: a short stocky man, fast balding, with the temperament of a bull dog. We sat still and motionless in his class and were very careful not to upset him in any way. But then, there were some other teachers with whom it was easy to fool around. I remember I was a quiet introverted young lad, wearing spectacles too big for the face. I plugged away at my studies, but could never occupy the coveted position of being first in class. That went to some other boys who it seemed would breeze their way through the exams. I hated maths and science and felt they did not allow freedom to the human mind to imagine and soar. As you could perhaps expect, poetry and literature were my strong subjects.
I swear I did not know the religion or caste of the boys who sat with me in the classroom. Nor to which social and economic class they belonged. We played in complete democracy in the school grounds in the morning, then at the lunch interval, and finally after school, with no thought of caste, creed or station in life. We all came to school in the state-run public transport buses, or on bicycles. I cannot remember any swanky cars dropping off, or picking up, spoilt rich children at the school gates. when the cane swished through the air and struck our bottoms, it made no fine distinction between caste or religion, the rich or the poor or the colour of the skin. Without fail each morning there was a school assembly where noble thoughts of all the religions were expressed and fine songs from a collection of verses from Hindu, Sikh, Christian and other sects were sung.
I left the portals of that school in 1970, moved through seven years of pre-degree, graduation and post graduation classes. And then to the Indian Administrative Service in 1977. Thus I landed in Rajasthan, an alien state with a language I could barely understand. In the next three and a half decades I rose up through the bureaucratic hierarchy of the state, finally reaching the office of the Chief Secretary. And despite being a stranger to its soil, I came to love that desert state. When I superannuated and relocated to Bangalore, it was as if I was once more cutting the umbilical cord to a state which had become my second home.
In that long stay in Rajasthan, there was a two-year period when I was posted as Principal Secretary to the School Education Department. I visited countless public schools in the state, to see at first hand how we, as a nation, were educating the children of our country. I remember walking into one school after another, in hot summers and bitingly cold winters, where often teachers were absent, where children sat on the floor, where the deprived and poor children ate their mid-day meals separately, where most couldn’t read a line in Hindi or add numbers together. The competence of the teachers was doubtful, many of them faltering when asked questions about their own subjects. Caste was present everywhere, amongst staff and students. The children of better-off families had already shifted to private schools mushrooming everywhere, even in rural areas. Those left in government schools were largely the poor, the young girls and those belonging to depressed and disadvantaged families. I seemed to see a haunted desperation in their eyes, or was I mistaken. Had poverty and ignorance taken their spark away?
One report after another highlights the injustices we commit on the children of India. How over 40% of them suffer from nutritional deficiencies. How cases of sexual harassment against them are rising. How child labour is an inescapable fact of our economic market.
Our children in the age group of upto 18 constitute almost 20 percent of our population. We are a young nation and while we all talk of the advantage of our demographic dividend, I fear we deceive ourselves. But for a thin crust of privileged children in fancy schools who can compete with the best of the best anywhere in the world, the rest of the children of India are deprived of quality education, destined to ignorance and lost chances in life. They cannot face the competition of the cruel world outside or attain gainful employment that will sustain them and their families in the uncertain future ahead.
Indeed, I know that our country has changed in this half century, that the brotherhood of the classroom I knew so many years ago has disappeared; that teaching is no longer a vocation, but a profession like any other; that teachers are no longer venerated; that schools are no longer the portals of learning and teaching they once were. One study after another shows how our children are falling down a precipice they can never climb up from. Our political leaders and policy planners are diverted by the glamour of investment and infrastructure and bullet trains. Didn’t you hear, we are the fastest growing economy in the world. And as for health and women’s issues and nutrition and education, well they are too complex; they require a seriousness and a tenacity, a long range commitment that is so exhausting, so well nigh impossible to sustain. Indeed, if we to make even a dent in the problems we face, we require more than the statutory five years allotted to a government. So why bother?
And yet one cannot lose hope. I await a Messiah who can transform our schools, and take our children into that ‘heaven of freedom’, where they can awake and find themselves their rightful place under the sun.
But, have we lost the battle already?