Mukund Rajaram took out the printout from his laptop bag. The security guard pulled it from his hand and pored over it with piercing eyes. Without written consent visitors weren’t allowed into Sharada Vidyalaya Residential School. Susheela’s warning had been timely.
It was different when Mukund was a student.
Anyone could walk in and feel at home instantly. In the middle of a class an old student might enter without warning. The teacher, delighted to meet her, would abandon the lesson midway, welcome her to the class and introduce her in words that would make her blush. “She was so good in English, you know, always insisting on le mot juste and swearing by Dickens and Austen. And her handwriting! You had to see it to believe how neat it was.”
The security guard nodded his head after inspecting the printout. He handed it back and said, “Write name phone number in visitor book.”
Mukund entered the security room to fill out the details in the visitors’ book. The erstwhile watchman Ranganna’s house had now become the ‘security room.’ Ranganna of the toothy smile, self-made baton, and kind reproaches.
The security guard handed him a visitors’ pass that he was to wear around his neck so that it would be visible all the time.
The visitors’ pass swayed awkwardly as Mukund walked across the empty sports field to the main building. At least four new buildings had come up. The walls were freshly painted. The doors had been recently polished. The floors had designer tiles. Not a speck of dust anywhere.
Mukund entered the building and showed the same printout to a young lady sitting at a desk. She was the secretary to the secretary to the headmistress. She looked at the paper. Then she asked him to sit down on the black leather sofa that was facing them. He sat down as instructed. He looked around the room for a few minutes before picking up an education magazine lying on the side-table. Finding more advertisements than news, he put it back in its place.
After about ten minutes, a lady came up to him and spoke in a business-like manner, “Good morning Mr. Rajaram! Sorry to have you waiting, but madam is busy in a board meeting. She will meet you in fifteen minutes.”
This was the secretary to the headmistress.
Mukund smiled and said that he didn’t mind waiting. After a three-hour flight, a four-hour drive and an overnight stay, fifteen extra minutes were insignificant.
“Mukund, we’ve sat through seventy interviews in the last nine days. Can’t we find one good designer who we can groom to be a typographer?”
“When we started this business, you know, I’d imagined that it would just be the four of us working with clients. Recruitment is a bitch.”
“Yes, but the business has grown dada. I don’t have to tell you about our situation. No longer can you be the CEO and the typographer.”
“Can I pick typographer then?” said Mukund hiding a smile.
“I can assure you that finding a CEO will be harder.”
“Joydeep, you know how I got into this profession? You may not believe it, but it’s actually because of my school.”
“What? Did you go to design school? I thought you went to IIT Madras.”
“I am talking about my school. The place where I studied up to tenth standard.”
“Oh really? Then does your school have an alumni network? We could plug into that perhaps?”
“I have an even better idea. The students usually have three months off for summer and they always do internships. I could get a couple of guys.”
“All the way to Kolkata?”
“Yes. We will fund their travel and stay. They can work without pay but learn the nuts-and-bolts of the job. Once they get a hang of it, we could offer them a part-time job. They can continue to work from their hostels.”
“Part-time job while in school? Dada, we’re living in India, not the US!”
“Oh you don’t know my school. We were very different. We were explorers. Romantics. Innovators. Free-thinkers. One of my seniors became an entrepreneur at the age of fourteen. You know, he started a sweet shop in our hostel. He would go to the market every Sunday and buy enough sweets for the boys’ hostel and sell it at a premium through the week when we weren’t allowed to step out.”
“Nice. What’s he doing these days?”
“Have you heard of the Palazzo Royale Hotel in Noida?”
“Don’t tell me he owns it.”
“Indeed sir. Nitesh Gupta. Class of 1991. Entrepreneur. Boxing champion. Drummer.”
“Well, give it a shot then. Somehow I am not very confident of finding school kids interested in part-time jobs. What with all the competitive exams and tuitions and mock-tests!”
“Not at all. Nowadays people are much more open to new ideas. And less risk-averse. Just look at the development in technology in the past five years.”
“My only advice is that you first see the place and only then bring up the idea of summer internships.”
The headmistress Mrs. Lakshmi Raghavan used to be a Social Studies teacher back in the day. Mukund had been in her class and had developed a love for geography from her lectures. Now he was standing in her room, filled with many memories. The headmistress’s room had become much larger now. Two rooms had been combined to make this one, large room. Oak panels. Venetian blinds. Plastic flowers in a porcelain vase. Paintings by Monet and Husain were hung on the walls, replacing the single Ravi Varma masterpiece that once adorned the room. Mrs. Raghavan invited Mukund with a broad smile and a shake of the hand.
“Welcome back Mukund. Please have a seat. How have you been?”
“Thanks miss. I’m doing well. How are you?”
“Just as you see me. Being with children, I have not lost my youth.”
She laughed at her little joke and Mukund was obliged to laugh along. He was happy to meet her but was also distressed to go through the red tape. After a few moments of internal conflict, he decided to record his displeasure. “It was hard to get an appointment with you, miss. The security measures seem to be a bit extreme.”
“Yes, it’s a pity, you know. We have so many parents who want to admit their children and they are such a nuisance. They can go to any extent to get a seat. There’s a procedure that needs to be followed, you know, and these parents land up in my room. They want me to immediately—and rather miraculously—let their brilliant children study here from the very next moment, you know.”
Mukund tried to smile.
“So what do you do Mukund?”
“I am a… typographer.”
“That’s very interesting. Not too many choose that line of work. It’s like graphic design, no?”
“I also do graphic design sometimes, yes.”
“We’ve been looking for some advice on the design of our school magazine, you know.”
“I’d be glad to help.”
“So what brings you here?”
“Just visiting. But are all the old teachers still around? Jennifer miss, Keerthi sir, Remya miss, Kalpagam miss.”
“Most of them have retired. We have a new set of dynamic teachers. But there are a few old hands. You probably remember Kamala, Diego, Maya.”
“Oh nice. I can never forget the English classes of Maya miss! Does she still impress the students by quoting verbatim from Shakespeare?”
“Haha, that she does.”
“So are you married?”
“Not yet miss.”
“And what does your wife do?”
“She’s works with me in my firm. She’s an NID grad.”
Mukund had travelled more than a thousand miles to be there but now he was feeling weary. He tried to bring the conversation to a soft landing, using certain phrases, a change in tone of voice and suitable hand gestures.
Mrs. Raghavan got the hint. She suddenly said, “Well, let me not eat your head anymore. Do go around the school and see how things have changed. I’m sure you’ll love it, you know. You’ll be jealous looking at the way things are now. I bet you’ll wish you were a student now. Just walk around and feel at home. Premila will help you if you need anything. And drop by before you leave. We can have a cup of coffee together.”
After saying goodbye, Mukund went out of the room to the sitting area. Premila, the
secretary to the secretary, asked him if he needed any assistance.
“Oh no, I’m quite familiar with the place. I’ll find my way around. Thanks.”
Very soon he was to find out how unfamiliar everything was.
Mukund walked around the main building and after a while his hovering eyes fell on the signage. It had been done exceptionally well. In his days, all the signs were set in a gaudy home-grown version of Times New Roman. Of course, he had known very little about typefaces when in school, but looking back he could see how bad they had been. The new signage had a very elegant combination of Helvetica for the headings and Georgia for the smaller text. Someone who knew their job had designed this.
The library was next to the main building. In his time, Saturday used to be library day. It wasn’t formally designated as ‘library day’ but once every week all the students would sit in the library, sometimes for the whole day, reading books on different subjects. Several times during the day, the students left their books midway and went for walks in the sports field to discuss what they had just read. They battled with words and ideas about art and science. When the debates dried their throats, they returned to their reading or went trekking in the nearby forest.
As Mukund entered the library, he could see Mrs. Kamala Menon in the far corner of the room, arranging some books in the section marked ‘History.’ His eyes wandered around the room and suddenly stopped upon seeing the English section. He walked towards the bookshelf and began searching for one of the prized possessions of their library: a rare first edition of Eliot’s delightful work, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The book had been produced extremely well and he had only faint memories of the typeface. He wanted to have a fresh look at it. As he bent down to see the books on the lower shelves, Mrs. Menon walked towards him and asked him who he was.
There was nobody else in the library so Mukund didn’t have to speak in the hushed tones reserved for libraries. He stood up and said, “Good morning miss. I doubt if you remember me. I’m Mukund Rajaram. Batch of 1992.”
“How difficult it is to recognize you all! How long did you study here?”
“From ’83 to ’92, miss. Then I moved to Bangalore for my PUC. You joined us in ’89 I think. I was in the seventh standard at that time. Malini miss was our class teacher.”
“You’re absolutely right. This is my fifteenth year in SVRS. And it’s so hard to remember all the students, you know, but I definitely remember that you were a very silent boy.”
“You’re right about that, miss. Even now I’m not very talkative.”
“So what brings you here? Just visiting us or did you have other work in Chikmagalur?”
“No, I just came to visit the school. It had been a long time. And I was thinking of—”
“So how do you find it?”
“It’s changed quite a bit.”
“That’s the way things are, aren’t they? But for us, who have been around all along, it doesn’t seem like such a big change.”
“I guess I feel the stark change because of the long gap.”
“Certainly. Now for example, we have so many books in the Computer Science section – on programming, networks, languages.”
“And in those days there was no Computer Science section at all. There used to be just a ‘Science and Technology’ section, right? By the way, miss, I was just looking in the English section here. We had the first edition of T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, remember? It had a yellow cover I think, with the illustrations by Eliot himself. I’m not able to locate it.”
“I don’t think we have that edition anymore. The Definitive Eliot Reader should have two or three poems from that book – Skimbleshanks, Gus, and Macavity for sure. Do you want to see it?”
“No thanks, miss. I wanted to check something in that particular edition.”
“Oh ok. We gave away all the old books because nobody was reading them. We also got rid of all the regional language books. The library now has only new books and they’re all in English.”
Mukund felt like someone had just punched him in the gut. Their library was a treasure trove of regional language books. Even as he stood there in front of Mrs. Menon he could visualize Prasad Kurdikar reading out—and translating—hilarious passages from Pu La Deshpande’s Hasavnuk, Nitesh Gupta sharing excerpts from a worn-out copy of Premchand’s Godan, Jayashree Pillai reciting poems of Subramania Bharathiar from a rare 1942 edition, Ipsita Sarkar translating Shukanto’s Ekti Moroger Kahini, Subbaramaiah hopelessly trying to translate T. P. Kailasam’s Polee Kittee, Mary Joseph sharing passages from Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam, Susheela Sundar narrating tales from the Katha-sarita-sagara and K V Rajashekhara rendering the verses of Vemana in rhyming quatrains.
Mrs. Menon quickly said, “It is a big loss, but instead of those books just decorating these shelves, we thought it would be better to give it away to different government school libraries.”
A fake smile appeared on Mukund’s face.
“That’s the way things are. People’s tastes change over time. Anyway, it was great meeting you, miss. I will now get some lunch. The canteen is still in the same place, I suppose?”
“Yes, it’s in the same place. Enjoy your meal.”
The canteen was so clean that Mukund felt like he was sitting in a five-star hotel in Bombay or Paris. The caterers had changed and now they wore disposable plastic gloves and white uniforms.
And seventy-five rupees for a plate of akki rotti? But then it wasn’t easy to get akki rotti in Calcutta.
After lunch, he walked around the sports field for a while and almost unconsciously landed up at the sports room. Written in bold Helvetica, ‘Sports Room’ looked all the more beautiful. But when his eyes moved to the timings—4 to 5 p.m.—they grew big in shock.
“Just one hour? What have they done to this place?”
In any case, he would have to wait another three hours before he could gain entry. He walked towards the boys’ hostel, which was the next building. A security guard stopped him at the entrance. Mukund was nonchalant. “I am an old student of this school. I used to live in this hostel. Pradhan sir is still the warden?”
On hearing Pradhan’s name, the security guard softened and led him to the warden’s room. Varun Pradhan was sitting at his desk, looking intently at his computer, punching keys using a single finger. He recognized Mukund as soon as he laid eyes on him. At the start of the second term of Mukund’s tenth standard, he had become really sick and it was Pradhan who nursed him back to health. And on the farewell day, Mukund had gifted him a beautiful fountain pen.
“Aha, Mukund Ramaraj! What a pleasant surprise.”
“Rajaram, sir. Mukund Rajaram”
“Right, right. Nice to see you man. You’ve put on quite a few kilos I see. And the Tamil film hero moustache is obviously a recent development!”
“It’s been so long sir, the extra kilos are no surprise. And I’ve had a moustache ever since I was in college. How are you, sir?”
“I’m doing good man. Sit, sit.”
“Thank you, sir. Things have changed quite a bit sir.”
“But I’ve hardly changed. Still wake up at 5, exercise for an hour, keep a check on the boys, gardening in the evening, and reading aloud one page of Kuvempu’s poetry before bed. Same old routine.”
“Haha, just that you didn’t have this computer back then.”
“That’s true. Initially you know I had a tough time getting used to it but now I just can’t do without it. In fact, I hardly get to use my pen. By the way, remember this?”
Then he picked up from his pen stand the very pen that Mukund had gifted him years ago.
Mukund blushed before mumbling, “You still have it sir!”
“Oh yes I do, but then I hardly use it. After all, this is the digital age. Pens and watches are jewellery.”
“Yes sir, you’re quite right,” said Mukund with an unconcerned air and quickly changed the topic to something that was gnawing at him. “Another thing sir. The sports room is open only for one hour. How is that possible sir?”
“Hmm that’s right. But hardly anyone uses it nowadays you know. Most of the students are so busy with their studies and projects and assignments that there’s hardly any time for sports. There’s after-school IIT and CET tuitions, preparatory tests, mock exams, mock interviews, soft-skills training and so on and so forth. Those are the stuffs that are popular now. In fact, starting this academic year students have one hour less of play time.”
“That’s very unfair.”
“But nobody protested man. Oh, oh, I almost forgot. I’ve to rush for a teachers’ meeting now. Such a pain to sit through it. I wish we could step out for a coffee. But I hardly have a moment. Nice to see you man. Stay in touch!”
It was still quarter past one and Mukund had to wait for a while before he could enter the sports room. He first thought of looking around the rest of the school but the heavy lunch made his eyelids droop. He walked towards the trees in the far end of the sports field and sat down on one of the stone benches. It was the onset of monsoon and there were dark clouds in the sky. As he looked vacantly into the distance with half-shut eyes, he went back to his school days and the golden hours he spent in the sports room.
The sports room.
Those very words conjured up a host of sounds, smells and sights. Was there any force that could efface the memories associated with the sports room? He was what he was because of those memories and those experiences.
The discoloured walls with paintings and murals. Mixed with the aroma of sweaty socks, dusty board games, and hot pakodas. With an improvised background score of cheering, booing, and screaming. If there was heaven on earth, it was not atop the Himalayas, it was not under the Indian Ocean, it was not in the Western Ghats, it was here, it was here, it was here.
The sports room was actually a long hall with large steps at one end. In the ’60s, it had been an indoor stadium. There were large windows on both sides of the hall. The ones on the left opened out to the forests and the ones on the right opened out to the sports field. When the windows were opened in all their glory, the room would have a perpetual cool breeze, and yet the sheer magnitude of students would leave behind an intense odour of sweat.
In those days the sports room opened at 3 and was open till 8. Students often lined up at the door by quarter to three and the 8 pm closing down time was just in theory. On most days, the room was open till quarter to nine. Almost the entire high school was there, every single day. Its brilliance attracted everyone. It was the great fire that moulded ideologies and forged personalities in the crucible of fun.
Several tables were arranged one after another, with a variety of games – table tennis,
billiards, chess, snakes and ladders, checkers, go, carrom, trade, ludo, Monopoly, and Scotland Yard. There were two ping-pong tables, one pool table and several tables for chess, carrom and checkers. Some of the seniors used to play cards on the far right near the window. At a given chess table, while two of them played, seven others were around them watching, analyzing, advising, and cheering.
On the large steps there were drama rehearsals for plays written by the great playwrights or by the students themselves. Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw met Shudraka and Bhasa. Someone imitated Al Pacino, another mimicked Juhi Chawla. The fiery communists and socialists clashed with right-wingers and centrists. Fischer enthusiasts locked horns with Karpov fans. Democracy was questioned and economic policies were debated.
Susheela would compose a poem in vasantatilaka and Rajashekhara would immediately reply in iambic pentameter. Mary would make fun of Bengalis and Ipsita would tease the Malayalis. Subbaramu and Prasad would battle over whether Belgaum belonged to Karnataka or Maharashtra. Mukund would be found with Madhuri and Jonny, either painting with water colours or doing calligraphy.
It was always the seniors who first got to sit at the tables while the juniors either watched them or ran some errands. The canteen chaps set up shop by around 5, making pakodas, samosas, chips, hot chocolate and coffee. The juniors ran from the hot stoves to their respective tables where the seniors were engrossed in play. The seniors made them work but rewarded them amply with food and drink. The card players at the corner were often seen smoking cigarettes or beedis, depending on what the canteen helper boys could procure on a given day. One also heard the choicest of swear words when the seniors played carrom. Whether or not a coin went into the pouch, an expletive was sure to be heard.
Girls and boys used to fight like kids, fall in love like teens and when the need came, care for each other like mature adults. They discussed each other’s problems and came up with ingenious solutions. Some of the older girls taught the younger children if they had trouble with their studies.
The canteen chaps would wind up by around 7.30 and that is when the music would start. Rajesh would bring his acoustic guitar, Janaki her violin, Subbaramu his mridangam and Nitesh his drum-kit. Ipsita was a great clone of Lata Mangeshkar and would regale the group with her full-throated singing. And when they were tired of it all, someone would put on the gramophone and listen to records of western classical music.
Mukund and Jonny would move on from painting to discuss physics, math and technology. Marine life fascinated them and they spent hours looking at pictures in the encyclopaedia. Mary and Madhuri would spend the later part of the evening knitting new patterns with wool and learning some craft from each other. Jayashree would sculpt or make models from clay.
The sports room was a living organism. An ecosystem. A microcosm of life itself. But for their sports room, Mukund would have never known that typography was a profession. Neither would Jonny have become a marine biologist.
Madhuri became a world-renowned painter. Subbaramu became a comedian, acting in films in all four major South Indian languages. Sheela, a poet and award-winning translator. Rajashekhara, a professor of English. Mary Joseph, a writer. Nitesh, a hotelier. Rajesh became an advocate by day and rock star by night. All thanks to the sports room.
The school bell rang at 3.45 pm and shook Mukund out of his reverie. His face glowed as he slowly stepped back into reality. Nostalgia in right doses was so therapeutic. He stretched his arms and took a deep breath. Then he walked to the sports room. His pulse a little faster than usual, his breath a little shorter than usual.
The security guard came and opened the door of the sports room. Mukund was embarrassed to go in alone, so he waited for a few students to come. After almost fifteen minutes of waiting, a few students turned up and entered the sports room. Thus far, he saw only girls. After some time, he stepped into the room and before he could even look around, one of the girls sharply said, “This is the girls’ room. The guys’ room is on that side.”
Only then did Mukund observe the small sign that indicated this reality. The sports room had been divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section.
What? A boys’ section and a girls’ section? This is the age when they need to know and understand each other.
Mukund was already feeling sick. But he chose to enter the sports room from the boys’ side, perhaps looking to complete the journey before passing a final judgement.
The floor was spotlessly clean, the walls were painted in a dull turquoise, and no cigarette butts could be seen in the corners. There was no canteen set up and the steps had been demolished. Most of the windows were barred and the floor was divided into several cubicles. Each cubicle had a designated game. On one of the walls was printed in large unfriendly letters “Maintain Silence.” The typeface was classy, but Mukund couldn’t get over his nausea.
The sports room had transformed into a microcosm of the corporate world with their black suits and accented English, undecipherable jargon and board meetings. The whole place stank of an imported room freshener. No sweat, no expletives, no laughter, no music and no samosas. Clean, hygienic silence blending with the lifeless air and empty space.
Unpaid summer internships in typography were a far cry.
Mukund felt like puking. He went to the boys’ toilet and it was so clean that he couldn’t get himself to throw up. The white-coloured walls blinded him. A school toilet without graffiti is like a body without a soul. Unable to puke even a drop, he just washed his face with cold water and walked towards the main gate.
On the way out, the main building came into view. He remembered Mrs. Raghavan’s offer of having coffee. It didn’t take too long for him to decide against it. He walked into the security room, picked up the pen lying in the middle of the open book, signed across his name in an indecipherable scrawl, returned the visitors’ pass and walked on the lonely road towards the bus stop.
After about twenty steps he couldn’t walk anymore. He stood motionless in the middle of the road with an unlit cigarette in his hand. The sky was getting dark. The birds were chirping loudly.
Hari Ravikumar is a writer, musician, and translator. His short stories have been previously published in Bhavan’s Journal, Spark, Indian Short Fiction, and The Affair. His weekly column Commonsense Karma appears in Daily O. He has co-written three books and several articles on the Bhagavad-Gita. In his “past life”, he was a mechanical engineer, software programmer, content manager, and product strategist. Now he just writes stories and plays the violin.