Manju was usually the first to arrive at school each morning, but today was different. Normally she would leave home at 8.30 am. along with her elder brother Bibin, but whilst he generally dawdled and fooled around with other students as they met them along the road, Manju would hurry ahead, keen to be early at the school gates. Today however, Manju was in no hurry to arrive. This was no ordinary day and she left home with mixed emotions and too many thoughts playing on her mind.
Dr. Ambedkar Government School was only twenty minutes’ walk from the small house where Bibin and Manju lived with their parents. Perhaps a little longer on a busy day, when it could take a while to cross the main road and to dodge between the constant flow of traffic. In all her days as a student Manju had never once been late and whilst today would be no different in this regard, she somehow felt less anxious than she would normally have been about arriving before the morning bell was sounded. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. In fact it could be said that this was less a change of attitude and more to do with her current state of confusion.
Along with many friends who lived in her block, Manju had started at the primary school when she was six years old. From day one she had relished the opportunity to learn and quickly understood that school was exactly where she wanted to be. Whilst she would never have said that learning came easily to her, Manju found that she could respond well to the new challenges which came her way. She quickly learned that through determination and hard work she could achieve marks that were as good as those of anyone in her class. Though at first she had assumed that she was not as clever as others in the class, she soon realised that this was simply a matter of learning how to think in English rather than turning over every idea in Tamil before responding to the teacher’s demands. Within a year of starting school Manju was being regularly praised by her teacher for the consistency of her work across all subjects, and then she knew that this was exactly where she wanted to be.
Hard work, achievement and recognition by her teachers; this had been the pattern of Manju’s school life for the past six years. Over this time she had received many accolades and had three times won the end of year prize given to the best performing student. The school principal Mr Desai had singled her out as an outstanding scholar, a student who in his estimation would go far and make the whole community proud. When visitors came to the school it was often Manju who was asked to stand and read aloud from an essay that she had recently composed. Yet, despite all this praise Manju kept her feet on the ground. She knew that to reach the levels that she had attained had involved hard work and commitment well above that which other students appeared to be prepared to make. But she also realised that she was treading a precarious path and that whilst her teachers saw for her a bright future, other influences in her life were less auspicious.
The conversation that Manju had had with her parents a month ago had not been easy for any of them. Manju loved her father and knew that he loved her too. He was invariably kind and attentive; often playful with her and willing to give her time. But Manju also realised that life was hard for her family and that money was far from plentiful. Her father’s job as an auto rickshaw driver was more secure than that of some of her friends’ parents, but the income to be gained was never fully assured and he often worked long into the night. Manju’s mother was similarly hard working as a homemaker who took pride in the appearance of her children as she saw them off to school each day. She herself had never had such an opportunity and to see Bibin and Manju leaving home in their neatly pressed school uniforms was a source of great satisfaction.
Manju observed the way in which her mother looked around at their neighbours as she and her brother left home each day for school. She knew that she sought the affirmation and respect that would come from the expressions of the women who watched, as she and Bibin began their morning journey to the school. Though the words were never spoken, Manju’s mother was keen to see that these other women knew that her children were being raised to shine. Manju, knowing the sacrifices that her parents made on behalf of Bibin and herself felt that her mother’s occasional periods of self-pride were more than justified.
Today however, everything seemed to be out of kilter and Manju found herself dawdling to school and reflecting on how much had changed in the course of a few weeks. Knowing the sacrifices her parents had given just to see her leave for school each day had not made the conversation which she had with them on that fateful Sunday evening a month ago any easier. She understood from the moment she was summoned by her father that a serious discourse was about to follow. The tone of his call and a slight hesitation as he shaped his words were enough to give her cause to be particularly attentive. Sitting before him on the floor she noted how he glanced uncomfortably in the direction of her mother whose own expression was hidden as she stood silhouetted by the bright sunlight that surrounded her as she leant in the doorway.
The conversation began as many whose real purpose is difficult to manage do, with plenty of platitudes and soft words. Taking her hand in his, Manju’s father told her how proud both he and her mother were of her many achievements and that she made them happy in everything she did. He smiled awkwardly as he gently squeezed her hand ensuring that he had her full attention. Immediately Manju understood that the messages to be heard were not going to be to her liking. She had heard such opening gambits before and knew that they generally presaged something less palatable.
“Just look at you”, her father began. “Such a fine young lady. Whatever became of the little girl we had? It seems like only yesterday I was bouncing you on my knee.” Manju didn’t know what to say, or even if she was expected to respond at all. Manju’s father made another quick glance towards her mother before continuing to speak. “Well now Manju, you are no longer a child. You have grown into a fine young woman, one to make all of us proud and that’s for sure.” He looked directly into Manju’s eyes, trying to gauge any indication that she might have anticipated the message he was about to convey. Seeing nothing that would help him he frowned and wondered if he should perhaps adopt a more direct approach. Still receiving no reaction from his daughter he took the decision and went straight to the point. “Your mother and I, well we’ve been doing a lot of thinking of late. As you know things are not always easy for us and sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about the future.” He hesitated slightly before continuing, looking again for clues in his daughter’s eyes, but finding that they were not there. “The truth of the matter is”, he stated, though with little real conviction in his voice, “the truth of the matter is that the time has come when we feel that it would be best for you to finish at the school”.
For the first time since this conversation began Manju’s father saw the reaction he had feared from his daughter. Having anticipated exactly the expression that he now saw upon her face he hurriedly continued with his argument before she could add her own voice to the conversation. “As, I say, we are both so proud of what you have done at school. We know that you have been a hard working student and have learned so much. But now you are no longer a child, you are a young woman and the time has come for you to take on new responsibilities in the home.” He wanted to continue without interruption, but before he could do so Manju broke her silence with an anguished cry.
“No, please father no. You can’t. I mustn’t leave school I still have so much to do. You yourself say I am a good student. Mr Desai and my teachers say I am doing well. Please, I beg of you father, please don’t make me leave.”
Manju’s father had anticipated a reaction, but the vehemence of his daughter’s reply took him by surprise. In response he tried desperately to adopt a placatory tone which he hoped would soften the blow. “Please Manju; it’s not that we don’t know that you have been a good student. As I say we are both so proud of what you have done. We know that you have worked hard at your school books. Every report we have had from the school has been good. But you must surely realise that there comes a time when girls must turn their attention to the important learning, which they need to be good homemakers and to prepare for the life that awaits them”.
If he really thought that Manju would be pacified by offering this gentle form of reasoning, Manju’s father was soon disabused. Far from appeasing his daughter he immediately realised that his line of argument had quite the opposite effect.
In anger Manju shouted, “If my school work is so good and the reports from school are so positive then why will you not let me continue with my studies? Can you not see that If I study hard I can make you even more proud? Perhaps in a few years’ time I could become a teacher, or even a doctor or a lawyer. Can’t you see how important this is to me? Manju found herself shaking and felt tears dampening her eyes. “How could you, how can you treat me like this?” She shook her hand free from her father’s grasp and stood as if to leave the room.
For the first time since this conversation began, Manju’s mother intervened, as pushing forward from the doorway she took Manju by the shoulders. “Listen Manju,” she began in tones that were far firmer than those heard up to this point. “You were the first girl in our family to go to school. Girls in this community have never had the opportunities you have had. We have treated you very fairly. You must listen to your father. He has made a decision and it for your own good and for that of all the family. You have done well at school but now the time is right. You are no longer a child and it is time to think of what it means to be a woman in this community. Soon you will be old enough to marry and no man will want you unless you can show that you can manage a home. The time has come to put your childhood behind you and to close your school books in order to begin the learning which you need for the real world.”
As often happens in the heat of the moment Manju could no longer think clearly. Later she could vaguely recollect some of her shouted responses, but even of these she was not totally sure. “It’s just not fair”, was an expression she was sure she had used several times. “Why should Bibin stay on at school when he hates it so much, but then you make me leave?” This part of her rant, for that was clearly what it had become, was certainly true, though it did little to help her cause. If she understood matters correctly, the only argument for Bibin’s continuation in education was simply that he was a boy and not a girl. Where, she wondered was the logic, let alone the justice in this statement.
Inevitably the conversation ended badly with Manju confined to her room, told that she should never defy her father, she had shown little gratitude for the opportunities she had been given, that she had disappointed her mother with her attitude and that the matter was at a close. A decision had been made, it was final and there would be no more discussion about the matter. And so it was that the debate reached it’s far less than satisfactory conclusion.
So it was that a decision had been reached and now, this was to be Manju’s last day at school. The urgency with which she had taken the route to the school gates each day was no longer there. She would not be late, but why should she hurry? For other students this was simply the last day of the school year with a long and welcome break from studies on the near horizon, but for Manju, as far as she was concerned this might as well be the last day of her treasured existence. As she entered through the school gates she found herself making an effort to hold back tears. When her many friends greeted her she contrived a smile but found it almost impossible to return their salutations.
The school bell rang and minutes later Manju found herself in a familiar position seated at her desk. On the surface this, her final day of formal education, progressed in much the same manner as the many hundreds that had preceded it. Mathematics, Hindi and English lessons passed uneventfully, though even in the history lesson, usually her favourite subject, Manju found it difficult to demonstrate much by the way of enthusiasm. Many of her classmates were happy that this was the final day of term and that for a few weeks they would be free from what they saw as the constraints of the classroom, but Manju felt unable to share their enthusiasm. If they were so keen to be away from here, why then might they not swap places with her? She so desperately wanted exactly those things that they seemed to value so little. As far as Manju was concerned there was no justice in this world.
The morning’s lessons passed and at lunchtime Manju took up her usual position on the stone bench beneath the large bean tree that afforded welcome shelter from the glare of the sun. She opened her lunchbox as she did every day and examined the food which her mother had carefully prepared. Today she noted there were extra portions of mango, her favourite fruit. This Manju took to be a clear indication that her mother recognised the sadness that she would be feeling at this point in her final day at school. Whilst some of the anger which Manju had felt towards her parents in the weeks immediately following the decision to withdrawal her from school had dissipated, she found herself unmoved by this motherly gesture of appeasement. She would not be so easily pacified. Perhaps, she thought, I am being unkind, but even if this was the case she was unprepared to accept that the decisions made were in her own interest.
Several of Manju’s classmates came to sit beside her at the start of that break time. They knew that this was a difficult day for their friend and most were sympathetic to her plight, even though some would happily have exchanged places with her in order to escape from what they saw as the drudgery of school. Many had offered condolences as they might have done had their friend been experiencing bereavement, and indeed this seemed appropriate on one level as Manju contemplated what was for her, a tragic loss. The kindly gestures that they now made, offering small delicacies from their own lunchboxes, placing a consoling arm around her shoulder, were well meant but served only to emphasise to Manju the injustices that she knew she must face alone.
A few minutes had passed since the start of the break time when Manju became aware of another presence having arrived beneath the tree. Looking up she realised that she had been unexpectedly joined by the school principal, Mr Desai. As he began to settle himself on the bench beside Manju, many of her friends moved away, sensing that that the principal’s presence there was focused upon Manju and that their attendance may not be necessary or even welcomed. A few hovered just close enough to be sure to hear any conversation that might pass between the two central figures in this scene.
For a while Mr Desai sat in silence and Manju, unsure of how to respond to this unexpected presence did likewise. After a few minutes however, the principal, having seemingly collected his thoughts turned his attention to his student. “Manju,” he began, “today is an important new beginning for both of us. Today, like you when I pass through the gates of Dr. Ambedkar School it will be for the last time.” He paused briefly before continuing. “Unlike you, I will be leaving after a long time of working within its classrooms, firstly as a teacher and more lately as the principal. But now I am tired and getting old and unlike you, I have made up my own mind about leaving.” Manju looked up at Mr Desai and tried to search for any emotion which might have been revealed in his face, but could discern nothing. Neither sadness nor relief were in evidence there and she was unsure why he had come to find her in this way. She wanted to tell him how she was feeling at that precise moment. She wanted him to know that she was struggling to behave like the fine young woman that her father had seen her to be, when really she wanted to cry like the unhappy young girl that she knew herself still to be. But neither words nor tears would come. All she could do was sit in silence and accept her fate without protest.
Mr Desai gave no indication of either his own emotions or of any understanding of what might be going through Manju’s mind. “I just thought,” he said. “That I would come and say goodbye to a young lady who I know will continue to be a good student for the rest of her life. In a few days’ time I will be returning to my old family home in Madurai, but I have many friends here and from time to time they will report to me about the progress which I know you will continue to make.” With this promise Mr Desai rose from the bench and before Manju could collect her thoughts and make a reply he was walking away from her, back towards the school building.
This strange encounter with Mr Desai occupied Maju’s thoughts throughout the afternoon sessions in class. Why she wondered had he singled her out in this manner? What did he mean about watching her future progress? These questions danced around her thoughts whilst what was left of her last day at school drew towards a close.
The final ritual of the school year was an assembly of all the school’s students gathered in the compound in front of the main school entrance. This event had followed the same format each year since she had been enrolled as a student, with Mr Desai presenting a review of the school’s academic, cultural and sporting successes, singling out individual students for particular praise and finally awarding prizes to the male and female students of the year. At just such an event Manju had on three occasions been the recipient of that very prize which always took the form of framed certificate and medallion on a ribbon in the school colours placed around the neck of the star student by the school principal.
As in previous years Mr Desai lauded the achievements of specific students and praised the performances of the girls’ volleyball and boys’ basketball teams and a recent fine performance by the school choir. The climax of the gathering came with the awarding of the prize for the year’s outstanding students. On previous occasions Manju had listened to this part of the proceedings with her fingers crossed, hoping that her efforts might have been recognised. This year the announcement seemed of little consequence. When therefore the name of Anjana Prasad was called to receive the girl’s award, Manju showed little emotion. She applauded Anjana’s success as was only right, but knew that at this, the final moment of her days at Dr Ambedkar School, her association with such rituals was coming to an end. As Mr Desai dismissed his students, wishing them all a good break from their studies, Manju suddenly realised that he had not once mentioned that he too would be leaving the school. Perhaps, she thought, he sees his own departure as being inconsequential and maybe he won’t miss the place. If this was the case then his emotions were far removed from those which she herself was experiencing at that moment.
Walking away from the school that evening Manju did not look back. If her school days were over she thought, then I will put them behind me. Bibin walked home beside her, for once neglecting to join his friends. He could sense the sorrow in his sister and felt that at this time, as Manju’s big brother, he should show himself to be supportive. They walked together in silence, neither of them having an understanding of the kind of words that might have been appropriate at this time. The journey home was uneventful, each of them seemingly alone with their thoughts, but as they approached their house they could see their mother awaiting them and as they drew near she shouted excitedly. “Manju, Manju, come quick you have a parcel here. Come quickly and see.”
Bibin quickened his pace, curious to see what this mysterious parcel for his sister could be, but Manju continued at her steady pace, even this announcement failing to raise her enthusiasm. However, as she reached the threshold of the house her mother eagerly thrust into her hands a brown paper parcel which had been left beside the door earlier in the day. “Quickly, open it Manju, let’s see what it is” demanded Bibin, who could not recall a previous time when a parcel had been delivered to their house.
Manju took the parcel from her mother and examined it carefully. There, written clearly on the brown paper was her name, for the attention of Miss Manju Sudev. There could be no doubt, the package was intended for her and on any occasion other than this she would undoubtedly have shown her excitement. Bibin and Manju’s mother looked on as Manju turned the parcel over in her hands, impatient for her to reveal the contents. Having toyed with the object for several minutes Manju looked towards her mother. “Who brought this?” see demanded, “when did it come?” “I don’t know” replied her mother, “when I returned from the market this afternoon, there it was beside the door. Aren’t you going to open it?”
Manju took a few steps away from the house and seated herself on a low wall. Having turned the parcel over several times in her hand she carefully began to peel away the brown paper to reveal the contents. Slowly, as the paper was removed, she was able to see that the parcel contained a book and there also, concealing the front cover of the book, a long white envelope which again bore her name.
Carefully putting the book and packaging aside without further examination, she took the envelope and tearing open the gummed flap removed a letter which she spread across her lap before taking it up and reading it silently to herself.
Today marks the beginning of a new phase in our education as we say goodbye to Dr Ambedkar School, a place which has been very important for both of us. Please note that I say that this is a new beginning and not an ending.
Education has always been significant in my life, as both a student and a teacher. It will continue to be just as important as I move to Madurai to take up new challenges and exciting learning opportunities. For although I will be officially retiring, I am planning to learn many new things. I have decided, for instance that I am going to learn the names and habits of all the birds, the butterflies and the trees in the area where I will live. I have always wanted to do this, but was never able to do so until now because my duties at school gave me so little time. I also intend to read and learn by heart the poetry of Tagore which I knew as a young man but have since largely forgotten.
I say that Dr Ambedkar School has been important for both of us, and this I believe to be true. But for each of us the school could only provide a small part of our education. We have been lucky indeed to have the opportunity which comes from formal schooling. But never doubt that attending school and being educated are not the same thing. School has provided the foundations for your learning, now you must build upon these.
I know that at present you probably find it hard to see education in terms other than those associated with attending school, but please open your mind to the learning that awaits you.
Look at the fishermen who live in your community. They can go many miles out to sea and catch fish. They navigate their way far from land. They can read the weather. They can feed their families. These are educated men, who may never have been to school, but they have learning such as you and I can hardly imagine.
Think about the vegetable sellers who everyday load their barrows and make such beautiful displays at the market near where you live. They understand their customers and work hard to serve their community on the basis of what they have learned and understand. These too are educated people who know so many things that I cannot hope to comprehend, though their learning has not come from books.
Manju. You are one of the brightest students who I have ever had the pleasure to teach. I know that you will continue your education both through your continued reading and thinking about the wider world, and by learning to understand the contribution which you can make to your community. I therefore hope that you will both enjoy and learn from the book which I am pleased to gift to you today, but also from the work which you do for your family and those who you see in need around you.
Today marks the beginning of the next stage of your education. I believe that you will make the most of the opportunities for learning that await you.
I will look forward to following your progress in the coming years as you become an ever more educated person.
Manju realised that she had tears in her eyes for the first time today, but that she no longer felt sad. She carefully refolded the letter and replaced it in the envelope, knowing that she would read it again many times. Reaching down she picked up the book that lay beside her and examined it carefully beginning with the title “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” by M.K. Gandhi.
“Well Manju, what is it?” asked her mother.
“Homework,” she replied with a smile, as she got up and took the book and the letter to her room to begin what she now hoped would be the next phase of her education.
Richard Rose is a writer, researcher and children’s rights activist based at the University of Northampton UK. For the past eighteeen years he has been working regularly in India on projects which aim to support teachers in enabling children who have been marginalised or excluded to obtain an education. His academic work has been published in journals and books in many parts of the world. His play “Letters to Lucia” written with James Vollmar which celebrates the life of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia Ann Joyce received its first performance by Triskellion Irish Theatre Company in 2018.