I was fortunate to complete my entire schooling at the Little Flower School, Imphal, Manipur. The school was run by the Salesian Sisters. I do not remember in which year I began school, but I do know that I wrote my Matriculation Examination [class x] in1970.
The school was initially housed in a small building called NIRMALABAS. It had been established only a few years before I joined and at that time had only junior classes. It was right in the middle of the town, and rather close to home. Me and my brother walked that half kilometer back and forth every day, albeit with an escort!
It was an English medium convent school which had a fair share of Anglo Indian teachers. I remember Miss Winnifred, Miss Yvonne, Miss Pamela Hayes, alien names of young lady teachers who looked unfamiliar in their frocks and their short hair, so different from the local populace of the Meiteis and Nagas of Manipur that I knew. The nuns: we addressed them as sisters, were initially mostly European. There was Sister Superior Cleofe and Sr.Cecelia Doyle, both tall and almost white. In time, Indian nuns replaced them: Sisters Maria Rodrigues, Mary Mascarenhas, Odelia, Agnes Kurkalang, Angelina are names that come to mind.
School was about studying in English, speaking in English. That was quite a dreadful idea to get used to in the beginning. How do you communicate with teachers who were unaware of your mother tongue, the only language a child knew?Therefore, the one sentence our parents taught us to say before attending school was Miss, may I please go to the bathroom ? to avert any crisis, in case of such an emergent need. The other day, a friend asked: how is it that you speak such correct English when you are from such a remote corner of India? Little did she know that my school made great effort towards that end, and succeeded, going to the extent of sometimes imposing a fine on us if caught conversing in our mother tongue.
My memories of those first few years are very hazy. We had colourful small chairs and low tables around which we sat, we sang nursery rhymes, played with wooden building blocks. We also had a nap time as part of the routine. I remember the morning school assembly and drills we had to perform, the singing of the school anthem. And sometimes being late for class! We carried a black slate and chalk to school and water in a plastic water bottle. At the end of the year we were excited to carry back home little articles that we had made in the arts and craft classes.
After about 2 years at Nirmalabas, my school shifted to a big brand new building on Tiddim Airport road. It meant that walking to school was no longer possible. A new experience of travelling to school by the school bus became the norm. I have vivid memories of that school bus painted green and white, with the school name painted on the sides [ our school uniform was also green and white]. It had a long nose and the body was made of wood. Inside, the seating was bare wooden benches all along the body, with 2 more rows lengthwise in the middle. The bonnet opened up from the sides, hinged along the middle. And yes, to start it, the driver had to crank up the engine with a huge metal rod around 2 1/2 ft long. Talking of the bus trips is not complete without a word on the driver, a jolly middle aged man. He made us all feel quite comfortable with his constant talk. It was also a privilege for any of us to be allowed to sit in the front of the bus, on his left, a privilege he alone could bestow. This was notwithstanding the fact that it could get very hot in there from the heat of the engine.
Those were the days when adults lived healthily on 2 square meals a day. Children were given an extra meal of breakfast, and snacking was never the norm. We went to school only with a bottle of water. Tiffin was never carried nor available at school. By the time school got over for the day, the breakfast had been totally digested, and food was all we could think of on the return home.
Fast forward to today.
I am living in a gated community at Yelahanka Bangalore. From my second floor flat I see the school van, mid sized tempo travellers, coming to pick up the little ones going to the Euro Kids Playschool. [Bigger vans for older children are not allowed inside. ] Most children are happy to go to school. They seem to enjoy being with their friends. Some cry the first few days. But the sight on their return from school is another matter. You cannot miss this experience because of the noise and commotion they make at that time.. Boys, girls, they all scamper out of the bus as if from a caged zoo, set free. They scream and shout, in wild abandon, unbridled bundles of energy, throwing their bags and boxes into the arms of their waiting mothers. They are uncontrollable for a few minutes, prancing around, not ready to get into the lift and to go home, just enjoying the freedom after the hours of discipline at school. Such innocence, excitement, playfulness, words that define children and childhood.
And I come out of my reverie.
Today there are no school vans , and the sight of children outside their flats is a rarity. The pandemic has robbed me of this little joyous scene that used to brighten my every day. But I am hopeful. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?